Sharon A. Peters' Chocolate Page

These are comments emailed to Tom Chester after Sharon read Tom Chester's Chocolate Page. Tom thought that this interesting information needed to be shared with chocolate lovers everywhere!

You've never had El Rey from Veneuela? Single bean, knock your socks off chocolate. Excellent couverture. I am not fond of milk chocolate: it's rather wimpy and often overly sweet. (Stanley Marcus, the witty and luminous map-maker of Dallas' Neiman-Marcus, refers to it as a "yokel taste.") Yet El Rey's milk chocolate is rich, barely sweet, and totally wonderful. Bittersweet El Rey Bucare may be a more robust and rowdy chocolate that you personally like - some fellow pastry people also feel that it's flavor is too assertive. But, what can I say? Asking chocolate to sit second chair in a pastry or dessert is rather like turning a Stradivarus into an ivy planter! My favorite dessert of all is a block of Callebaut bittersweet, or Valrhona Guanaja, or El Rey Bucare and my chef's knife! Jacques Torres and Pierre Herme are tied for second place.

Also, have you had any chocolates (candies) from Robert Linxe's La Maison du Chocolat? The little suckers are expensive ($2.00 & up each, $45-$50/pound), but will bring you to your knees and have you babbling in tongues. Neiman-Marcus carries La Maison du Chocolat products, including another item in the finest French bonbonerie tradition: fruit pastes. They, also, are divine - but of a lesser order of divinity - and I know I need not explain. I would think that any of the Neiman-Marcus stores in California would have them. Also, any fine foods shop carrying European chocolates. Linxe is one of the few practicing chocolatiers (the Bernachons of Lyon, and Michel Cluziel of Paris also come to mind) who purchase fermented and dried cocoa beans, then roast and blend their own chocolate mixturesw, grinding and conching them as well. It is my understanding that most other members of this high-end confraternity have their proprietary custom blends made through companies such as Valrhona, Cluziel or Callebaut.

In response to your comment regarding the slightly waxy quality of high-end Valrhona (available in a bar as Noir Amer, and in professional-sized 3 kilo packages as Guanaja) I suspect that you perceive an oiliness or waxiness because, at 71% cocoa mass (71% by weight of the chocolate contains cocoa solids and cocoa butter, together known as chocolate liquor), what you are eating it is practically pure chocolate liquor enriched with extra cocoa butter. Sometimes the finest couverture does not make the very best all around eating chocolate. This is, obviously, a tragedy. But I assure you, one can force oneself to adjust.

And finally, I am an unabashed fan of Mexican table chocolate - and Ibarra is probably the best brand commonly available in the US. However, in Mexico ... ah! You can find many brands containing almonds or vanilla or coffee ground in with the chocolate and sugar, and in the markets - especially in Oaxaca, Chiapas, Veracruz, and Tabasco you can buy the fermented, dried cocoa beans, roasted or unroasted, and you can have your drinking chocolate ground to taste - you tell the shopman how much by weight of beans, sugar, and what flavorings - cinnamon, almonds, etc. that you want, and bam! into the hopper of the grinder (looks like a deep scarlet 55-gallon drum barbecue pit with a hopper on top) and out of the chute oozes the sexiest smelling asphalt you've ever seen. This, I do believe, is the only proper venue to sing "On the Street Where You Live" in public, shamelessly, from the bottom of your heart, and at the top of your lungs!

With respect to the comment that Ibarra does not contain cocoa butter, Ibarra, like all real Mexican table chocolates, DOES contain cocoa butter. It does not, like the European style chocolates we are used to, begin from defatted or partially defatted chocolate liquor, with cocoa butter added back in to enrich it. European style chocolates are a tribute to the chemical and morphological plasticity of the cacao bean, as well as to the cleverness exhibited by those, mostly European, who discovered that plasticity and explored and exploited its possibilities. (Surely there is at least one truly merited Nobel lurking here somewhere.) Back to Mexican table chocolate: it is made from, simply, the cacao beans, roasted and husked, cracked, mixed with specified quantities of sugar, cinnamon, almonds, and other flavorings, then ground. Roasted, husked cacao beans are called nibs. These nibs still contain their full complement of cocoa butter, minus any very minor loss incurred during roasting, and, if ground with sugar, almonds, etc. to be processed into table chocolate, the final product will contain whatever cocoa butter was present in the beans. The crucial difference between Mexican table chocolate and European processed chocolates lies in a) very different processing techniques, and b) the fact that cocoa butter is neither removed nor added during the processing of the Mexican table chocolate. In California, you may be able to find different brands of Mexican table chocolate available to you. In Texas, we get Ibarra, El Popular, and Abuelita. There are another couple of brands from Colombia - but I'm not too wild about them. If you can possibly locate Chocolate Mayordomo from Oaxaca, buy all means buy all you can find.

Table chocolate results in a gritty product in part because it is not heated - at least not above the naturally occuring temp increase that results from the friction of grinding, which is insufficient to cause the added sugar to dissolve; in part because it is not so finely ground as European processing (to a measurement in microns) neither is it conched, a further smoothing and silkening process; and in part because the additional of almonds, cinnamon, or other flavorings will add to the grittiness. That being said, it's still highly satisfying to gnaw on, though. And if you happen to be able to buy it in the mercados, you can just dip your finger in your bag of chocolate sludge, and eat it like p'nut butter!

There is, I have found, much misinformation out there as to the origin and true history of chocolate - really of cacao. It is magical and mysterious: its botannical name, Theobroma cacao, means Food of the Lords, and it was the last gift to his subjects from the sadly humanly flawed god, Quetzalcoatl, who tossed the beans, stolen from the Abode of the Lords, onto the Tabasco coast as he rode a beam of light from the land he loved to his home, the Morning Star.

If you are inclined to continue your research, may I suggest a tasteful assortment of as yet unsavored examples of the chocolatier's art and the following stack of books. The true bible of cacao and chocolate is Sophie and Michael Coe's The True History of Chocolate. Second is Sophie Coe's previous book, America's First Cuisines. The only other book fit to share the table with the Coes' and the chocolate pot is Jonathan Ott's Cacahuatl Eater: Ruminations of an Unabashed Chocolate Addict. Once you have graduated Ott's course on lowdown on chocolate's alkaloids and the chemistry of cacao, Allen M. Young's The Chocolate Tree: a Natural Look at the History of Cacao is next in line. I cannot draw this list, much less my mania, to a time out spot without also mentioning Alex Szoygi's Chocolate: Food of the Gods, a collection of papers presented at Hofstra University's Chocolate: Food of the Gods conference, as well as Elisabeth Rozin's Blue Corn and Chocolate. I should also mention Chantal Coady's two petit volumes on chocolate: both are beautifully produced and fun reads, but I, personally, have some problems with incongruent historical references and Old World/New World attitude that rises like stink after the sacrifice. Still, they are good reads.

There are two more must read volumes: Chocolate Artistry, and The Art of Chocolate, both by Elaine Gonzalez, chocolatiere without equal and undisputed Cantadora of Cacao - an authority on its history, origins, and its myth. In November '95 I went on the inaugural trip of a now-annual pilgrimage to Oaxaca to study chocolate. The tour is called A Cup of Chocolate, and Elaine Gonzalez leads the group. It is organized by Zapotec Tours out of Chicago, and they go each year in early October.

You might really like that Cup of Chocolate trip to Oaxaca. In fact, one of my pastry mags mentions that Elaine Gonzalez - who leads the tour in October - will be leaving from LA with a group to go to Oaxaca in, I believe, February. Where Elaine passes, Theobroma cacao sprouts from her footsteps and chocolate delights fly from her fingers. Short of the wretched excesses of lolling in a bath of a well tempered upper-echelon Valrhona couverture, I cannot imagine a more perfect interaction with chocolate that to travel with and learn from Elaine.

That first trip, though, was a bit different - they were trying to find their stride, and so we met in Mexico City and went to Villahermosa, Tabasco - from there to jaunt out into thick, green jungle to visit cacao plantations, fermenting houses, and a magical family business tucked away near Comalcoalcos where they roast and process chocolate into table chocolate, cocoa powder and cocoa butter. It was an amusement park of Rube Goldberg equipment - some old stuff from Europe, some Mexican made, some locally confabulated. The 4 tiered vertical cacao press looked like some kind of oily champagne fountain; the aromas and odors were incredible. This was where I got the table chocolate perfumed with vanilla and coffee. But the real corker was in the little office. They had a small, old roller grinder and a small concher. They made milk (!) chocolate "coberatura" or coverture. It was quite smooth and creamy, and as I mentioned earlier, I am not a great fan of milk chocolate, but this stuff was pretty good. I don't think they're going to put Callebaut out of business, but it was neat to see the attempt at raising the chocolate industry in Mexico.

Cacao beans are covered with a starkly white, mucilaginous paste that is removed via the fermentation process - it is quite high in sugars and is very sweet. The locals traditionally trap this nectarous run-off and finish the fermentation. White lightnin'. I sampled some while I was there - nice, boozy, but not as stunning as the hangover it produced!

If you are in Mexico City, as a self respecting chocolate freak you owe it to yourself and to research to visit the Churreria El Moro. I have the address (somewhere), but it is quite near the Palacio Nacional, on Avenida Venustiano Carranza (I think) just at the intersection with Calle Uruguay. It is open 24 hrs/day and is one of the last chocolate shops in the DF. They make churros (beignet/pate a choux paste, long ridged fritters - in the most preposteriously beautiful blue tile covered concrete and metal deep fat frying bath I have ever seen. The only other thing they serve is pots of Mexican, Spanish, or French style drinking chocolate. You just dunk and sip your life away. But as much as I love that place, there is nothing quite like sitting in a rural market stall early in the morning with a soupbowl sized cup of chocolate and a sugared loaf of pan de huevo to dunk in it. Life can be so good.

In defense of this, my piece (non)raisonne, I like to think that those people and things that share and inform our lives and for whom/which we feel great passion infuse us with that passion and cause us to exude it like some sweet-sweated aura when we speak or write or even think about them. I finally shifted careers into food and cooking - professionally, that is, after many years of carrying on a side affair with it. It is fascinating and endlessly seductive, and has brought great people and great happiness into my life. May it do that for you.

Raintree Chocolate Page lists all active chemical constitutents and ethnobotanical uses of T. cacao. A bit dry to most due to a scholarly turn, but very very interesting!

For information on Cup of Chocolate Tour or travel to Oaxaca.

For books listed above.

Go to Tom Chester's Chocolate Page

1999© by Sharon A. Peters.
Permission is freely granted to reproduce any or all of this page as long as credit is given to me at this source:
Comments: Sharon A. Peters
Last update: 3 December 1999.