Expired · 9th November 2011
Today I am making chocolate for breakfast, hot chocolate, Cacao-Wisdom, to be exact. The Chef delivered her secret recipe for Cacao- Wisdom to me, along with a complementary set of the requisite ingredients, in a gold tin box wrapped with black ribbon. Some of these ingredients are a little exotic to me. The instructions include measuring precision amounts of a variety of richly hued, fragrant spices, what the Chef refers to as her “delicate balance.” This is in direct conflict with my ‘pinch-of-this and dash-of-that’ culinary style, but my senses are all in anticipation. There is also a small mortar and pestle lying on its side in the box; for hand grinding a fistful of fragile, velvety petals.
“Don’t worry,” says Chef, sensing my hesitation, her smile serene and radiant, the smile of an angel. “You can do this.”
This is a rite of passage for me. I am determined to earn the respect of the cacao bean, to reacquaint myself with its purity, its scent, its texture. I am trying to understand its life-force, for every food that sustains life does so with its own living matter. I gave up hot cacao decades ago, mostly out of a blanket dissatisfaction with the majority of cacao products on the market. This is a homecoming of sorts.
I am not merely testing myself against the subtle exactitudes of Chef’s divine recipe this morning. I am, in fact, redefining my entire relationship with chocolate. Perhaps, subconsciously, I am even redefining my entire relationship with desire itself. After all, is not chocolate the embodiment of desire in the contemporary mind, in the contemporary marketplace?
I have always desired chocolate, though it is only recently that I have begun to study it. I knew relatively little about it, only that I prefer dark chocolate, eschewing all others; 70% cacao solids or more is a standard requirement of the chocolate bars I buy. However, I want to move away from chocolate bars altogether, (it started when Cadbury’s bought out Green and Black’s) and go back to the pleasures of a satisfying brew of liquid cacao in my cup. An artisan brew made with the most natural ingredients, grown in ecologically sustainable conditions, prepared in small batches, sounds like just the thing to alternate with my morning espresso.
The unsweetened, alkalized cacao powder that Chef put in the box for me is low in cholesterol and sodium, a good source of protein, riboflavin and zinc, as well as an excellent source of dietary fibre, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, copper and manganese. It is wonderfully rich in iron. It has a low glycemic index. However, it is high in natural saturated fats, which is probably why the Aztecs boasted that a cup of cacao in the morning could sustain a long, hard day’s work. Aztec warriors carried bars of chocolates with them while on the campaign trail, a chunk ready to be melted in water for vital nourishment when the body’s resources faltered. Hundreds of years later Hershey’s, in an ingenious marketing coup to retain its high profits during World War II, followed suit and sent soldiers off to war with a billion chocolate candy bars in their lunchboxes. Though these candy bars surely provided some comfort in the trenches, it is unlikely they had the same nutritional properties as the chocolate bars the Maya had access to.
For the first 2500 of its known life, hot chocolate was prepared largely without sugar. It was a thick, buttery brew. The Aztecs did spice up it with chili peppers, but it wasn’t until the Spanish monks first carried the Theobroma bean home from their religious missions in the Mayan empire that this “fruit of the gods” began to undergo some dramatic culinary transformations. During the course of their social intimacy with the Mayan people, the monks came to glimpse a deeper understanding of the revered Theobroma Cacao tree and its place in the culture of this highly sophisticated and once flourishing civilization. They took that reverence back to Spain with them.
In their buttressed monasteries, they labored with equal parts spiritual love and institutional secrecy to produce the recipes that would eventually introduce chocolate to the whole of the European continent. It wasn’t until the French and the Italians got their hands on it that the cloak of secrecy gave way to the excesses of high society, and we began to see exactly what might constitute culinary artistry in the realm of cacao. In addition to sugar or honey to make it more agreeable to the European palate, there were spices and perfumes; the eager bite of black pepper, cinnamon, the shy kiss of vanilla and the tangy swirl of citrus peel, the headiness of jasmine, and the essence of amber. There was even ambergris, a rare and coveted musk oil derived from the excrement of the sperm whale. I do a spot inventory of my little gold box to make sure I have no ambergris lurking in there.
Cacao was even classified as a medicine at one point in its life, and sold only in apothecaries. Cacao butter was said to heal burns. Chocolate could relieve a fever, or start one, if you want to believe the claims that it is a love potion. It was prescribed to stimulate digestion and relieve depression. It is the dark chocolate, that 70% breed, that possesses all the flavonoids, which act as powerful anti-oxidants. Do remember, though, everything in moderation. Desire and Discipline are rival lovers that court each other through all eternity, and they are hopelessly lost without one another.
The Criollo variety of chocolate which Chef put in my box is a delicate creature, attached to its ancient ways. It thrives best in a permaculture environment that helps protect the biodiversity of its natural habitat, the tropical jungles of Mexico, cacao’s original birthplace. It seeks the shade of it taller neighbors, and loves a tangle of green growth around its feet, where the mites that pollinate its flower like to live. It does not tolerate its roots to be trodden upon. The large, elongated pods grow directly on the trunk, in bright shades of red, green, and yellow, and can only effectively be harvested by the human hand. The sustainable growing practices and labor policies which make this cacao premium, means it comes at a more honest price. Cheap and fast, whatever it may apply to, usually comes at the expense of something intangible that is truly valuable.
According to Aztec legend, chocolate is a gift from the gods, bestowed to mortals as a bridge between heaven and earth. Hmmm!! This is a bridge I can linger on a while. It was also the Aztec empire’s legal tender, the only real money that actually did grow on trees. Counterfeiters plied their trade by painting rocks or ceramic pieces to imitate the real bean.
Well, my cup of Cacao-Wisdom is ready for my lingering pleasure. I must go now. I have done a respectable job of duplicating the Chef’s recipe, and I have grown more humble in the process. I think I will leave it up to the Chef to make the batches from now on.
You can order your cup of Chef Antonietta’s Cacao-Wisdom at pantryfoodwisdom.ca.
Rescue Pak for home or office - 4 cups
Pantry Pak - 16 cups.
An excellent Christmas present for the chocolate lovers on your list.
Copyright, Francesca Gesualdi, 2011, All rights reserved.
My thanks to award winning CBC journalist Carol Off for the unflinching moral intelligence with which she investigated the politics of modern chocolate in her book, Bitter Chocolate. And Eduard, thanks to you, too.