Wednesday, December 1, 2010

CHOCOLATE~ Food of Mystery, Myth and Magic

Amano Artisan hot chocolate drink

Is there anything we can’t imagine when we think of chocolate? Its taste is transformative. Its presence on the tongue intrigues, the familiar slow melt from solid to liquid somehow reassures. This is a substance perfect in its texture and flavor. Dark and bitter or milky and sweet — there is something completely intoxicating about chocolate.

Its origin is the stuff of legend. Mired in mythology and a complex history of ritual, superstition and intrigue that brought the substance from the jungles of Mesoamerica to the tables of Spanish Kings. The earliest Mayans enjoyed “xocolatl” and believed the tiny beads found within the cacao pods to have restorative powers. The bitter brew made from grinding the seeds and mingling heated water, chile peppers, and cornmeal was a frothy ambrosia considered too precious for anyone but the tribal rulers and priests to consume. Eventually the spicy drink concoction evolved with the inclusion of vanilla or achiote, but no early version was sweetened, as sugar was unavailable in ancient Mesoamerican culture.

Drinking chocolate was an important ritual of early Mayan and Aztec life. In Mayan culture it was the beverage of kings. But in Aztec society, consumption expanded to various levels of that society’s upper echelon: rulers, priests, successful merchants, victorious soldiers, many such notables could partake of this sacred brew. Cacao seeds themselves were offered to the gods for favors and chocolate drinks were served during sacred ceremonies.

Columbus brought a sample of the first cocoa beans to Europe some time between the year 1502 and 1504, after his fourth visit to the 'New World'. But its value went unrecognized, despite his claims that it could produce a beverage that “builds resistance and fights fatigue.”

Saratoga Chocolates
 Some time later in 1528, Cortèz presented the Spanish King with cacao beans, preparing some of the beverage called chocolatl for him to taste. Cortèz’ royal version now had a major twist, the addition of sugar to the brew. When this sweetened mixture of cacao beans, vanilla, nutmeg, cloves, allspice, and cinnamon was experienced by the Spaniards, the reception was universally positive. Chocolate soon became a coveted taste sensation, drinking it was fashionable and reserved for the Spanish nobility, and others who could afford the pricy import. Demand rapidly grew throughout Europe — the fruits of this tree from an Indian forest far away were coveted by everyone in Spain. Yet for the next one hundred years, chocolate was a secret that Spain managed to keep from the rest of the world.

But it couldn’t be contained forever. This water-based form of spiced and sweetened hot chocolate eventually began to make its way across the continent and throughout Europe. The sweetened mixture was soon improved further by the addition of milk, and in most versions removal of the chile pepper (though given some of the variations of chocolate and chile I have tasted recently, I remain unconvinced that this is necessarily an improvement). This newly evolved version of liquid chocolate was wildly popular, and began to be enjoyed by all levels of society that could afford such delicacies for another hundred years or so.

For centuries, a liquid form remained the only way to enjoy the fruits of the cacao bean, until in 1847 Joseph Fry discovered a process to re-solidify powdered chocolate. His discovery is accepted by most as the ancestor to all versions of the modern chocolate bar. Fry developed a process by which melted cacao butter could be reintroduced gradually back into the de-fatted cocoa powder base. This method returned the “Dutched” chocolate to a more solid form, creating a paste that could be pressed into a mold. Add a little sugar to the mix, and voila! The resulting bar was such a hit that people soon began to think of eating chocolate as much as they did drinking it. The chocolate bar was born.

Plumeria Flours
 Even the genesis of the word “chocolate” itself is shrouded in mystery. Most believe the term originates from the Aztec “xocolatl” which meant something like “bitter drink.” The tree's botanical name, Theobroma cacao, pays homage to its mythical origins. Translated from the Greek, "theobroma" means loosely "food of the gods.” The Aztecs believed that ancient prophets had brought the cacao beans to them, imbuing the tree itself with mystical qualities.

The substance is more than just luxurious and tasty. Chocolate has been found to posess chemicals that actually strengthen the enamel on our teeth. Small quantities of dark chocolate have been found to lower blood pressure in humans. Many believe chocolate is an aphrodisiac and while there may not be any scientific evidence to support that theory, eating it certainly can stimulate those pleasure endorphins. Chocolate is naturally dark, satiny on the tongue, rich and creamy. Chocolate is the food of the gods, the stuff of dreams. A substance almost sinfully good, chocolate is — magic.

With that kind of history, how does one fail to attend a prestigious Chocolate Salon when invited? The answer is you don’t! TASTE TV’s Fall Chocolate Salon was held at Fort Mason on a gorgeous November day. The two rooms were chock full — not merely of delicious samplings of chocolate treats, but of artisans who have dedicated their lives to discovering every nuance, every variation on a theme of flavor that this legendary substance can provide. Some of the Participants and a few taste highlights are listed below.

One of the first things we tasted were the Salt Side Down ( ) truffles, a lovely truffle creation intended to be eaten upside down in order to allow the salt to preface its flavor profile; TCHO ( offered samples in the form of tiny discs of dark bittersweet chocolate, one particularly successful variety was flavored with citrus; the fall pallette of the hand-painted shells of Landru’s ( ) marvelously crafted truffles were eye-catching.

Socola's Sister Act produces amazing wares
 A particularly enjoyable stop was the ChocolatiQue ( table. Their traditional family recipes combined with amazing flavor combinations were just outstanding. A truffle designed to warm in the mouth and recreate the sensations of Hot Cocoa was fairly successful at the trickery, and another that when eaten collapsed upon itself to recreate the flavors of a Root Beer Float was a hoot. The owner, quite proud of his family recipes for both toffee and fudge had every reason to be so, his grandfather & grandmother had left behind some fabulous road maps to confection heaven. So many creations, so little time.

Moving on to the Tea Room Chocolates ( their chocolate bars were perhaps the most memorable. I tasted their Milk Chocolate Bar Infused with Black Masala Chai Tea which simply put was one of the most transformative taste experiences I’ve had. Their tea-infused dark chocolates were creamy and flavorful and the pleasant sensation of eating them lingered with me for the balance of the afternoon. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed the surprising combination of chai and chocolate in particular. Another extraordinarily memorable chocolatier proved to be Sterling Confections ( whose triangular truffle bars of a colorful fondant-like shell filled with delectable ganache were as stunningly lovely and creative as they were delicious. The soft consistency of the bar is designed to make slicing it a breeze.

Clarine's Florentines
Snake & Butterfly’s( wares are Organic & Fair Trade which for many is the only way to purchase. Good news for them, S&B’s treats suffer no loss in quality for being green. The thoughtfulness in their preparation shines through to the flavors delivered — all were just perfection. Same holds true of the chocolate offerings at Carlos Mann Nicaraguan Artisan Chocolates ( & Au Coeur Des Chocolats (  So many impressive artists in the house.

Another creative presentation were the chocolate covered Oreos delivered at Plumeria Flours ( Fun, fanciful and original, the cookies are covered in a creamy chocolate sensation and then decorated like flowers, baseballs, all manner and variety of artistically rendered themes. Jade Chocolates ( presented a Dragon’s Breath Bar which came near the end of my day, but tasting it knocked my socks off. The flavor profile was extremely complex. The bar is at first the sensation of a delicate crunch as the toasted sesame releases into the mouth in gentle pops, immediately the smoky tea-infused chocolate fills the mouth with that languine, creaminess that only well-developed chocolate can provide. Just as the chocolate begins to fade, the bar finishes with a subtle kick of chili in the back of the throat. SPEC tacular!

Vice Chocolates ( had easily the most decadent and eye-catching packaging I’ve seen in years. If chocolate is an aphrodisiac, then this is definitely how it should look! Christopher Michael Chocolates ( were passing out bits of bacon truffle toward the end of my day which I found intriguing.

They say we save the best for last, and perhaps that may be Amano Artisan Chocolates ( After so many tastings and so many many good flavors, we came upon Amano fairly late in the day. Almost at the point where my tastebuds were tuckered to the point of numbness. But not so once I tasted their offerings. The first item presented was a hot chocolate drink that could easily been a cup of the brew that first knocked the socks off of the King of Spain. A heavenly form of chocolate this liquid ambrosia. Every other item at their table that I tasted was some form of superlative artistry. This is an outfit that clearly has mastered the preparation and service of chocolate. Transformative stuff.

These artisans and more can be found at I suggest you visit a few of the ones that appeal to you for some decadent Holiday shopping. This was a delightful event, and I look forward to making it an annual treat.

Check them ALL out, and Bon appetit!

For info on Taste TV’s upcoming Salong:
Full list of participants -