Tag: Latin America

Basic Inspirations, Take 2

Part II, Chocolate

Like vanilla, chocolate is also a labor intensive and highly refined product.  While vanilla is the most fickle during the initial growing process, the science behind chocolate shines in the post growing production.  Also similar to vanilla, chocolate will only grow 20 degrees north and south of the equator.

Long before chocolate became a common ingredient, the Aztecs believed the chocolate was food from the gods, given to the humans by a rouge deity who later got punished for introducing this amazing ingredient to the humans.  How this myth got started is very believable, considering how non appealing the fruit growing on the tree it.  It looks like a giant papaya, the natural fruit looks nothing like the final product.  It is hard to believe that humans figured out this process without divine intervention.

Chocolate was used as a form of currency in ancient times and as soon as the revolutionary war.

Chocolate is the final product made with cacao as a base. In raw form, cacao is very bitter and needs to be fermented to develop taste.  After the fermentation process, the beans are dried and roasted to further develop flavor.  The shell is then removed, separating out the cocoa nibs.  The Mayans used part of the outer shell as a fermented sugar to make liquor, a  tradition that has stopped with the demise of the civilization.  I bet this liquor was delicious.  Chocolate was served as a frothy bitter beverage, flavored with vanilla, used as medicine and valued for its aphrodisiac properties.

Although this process has largely not changed since ancient times, this is where the development of chocolate stopped until it was introduced to the Spanish, who took it one step further.  The Spanish added sugar, segueing chocolate into the confection that we know today.  In 1815 a Dutch chemist figured out a way to make chocolate less bitter by adding alkaline salt.  In 1850 a Quaker figured out how to add melted cocoa butter back into pressed chocolate, giving chocolate the solid form that we know today.  In 1875 a Swedish man added milk and mild powder to chocolate, forming the Nestle company and really changing the face of chocolate.

After the cacao is shelled, the cocoa nibs are further broken down to create cocoa mass and cocoa butter.  These are then recombined to create the ideal blend of mass and butter for mouth feel and structure.  After the chocolate is blended, it goes through a process called conching.  A container is filled with metal beads that act a grinders, making the chocolate and sugar granules so small that the tongue cannot detect any particles or grittiness.  This process can take up to 72 hours.

After this step, the chocolate must be tempered so that the fat crystals align in such a way to create a uniform structure.  This is done through a particular formula of time, temperature, and movement.  This process is one of the steps that makes working with chocolate so difficult.  Once chocolate is melted down, the crystal struck has collapsed.  It must be built back up again with this closely monitored system.  If not done properly, the chocolate with crumble instead of snap, very important for mouth feel and structural integrity of the final product

The different percentages of chocolate and the corresponding bitterness is a result of adding back in cocoa butter, sugar, milk.  These are then recombined to create different percentage of chocolate, the most popular being unsweetened, semisweet, dark chocolate 65%, milk chocolate, and white chocolate.

Although native to Mexico, West Africa grows 2/3 of chocolate, half of this coming from the ivory coast.  Given how laborious and long the process of making chocolate is, there is no surprise that slavery plantations sprung up to deal with growing demand of this amazing product.  Although slavery is now demeaned inhumane, we currently still have a problem with child slavery.  There are some chocolate products labeled fair trade, but surprisingly, child slavery still exists.  The demand for cheap and available product has created a situation that is beyond immoral and very upsetting.

Outside of a tasty confection, chocolate has long been used as a form of medicine.  It is high in antioxidants, reduces heart burn, and is an anti inflammatory.  Not only is chocolate delicious, its history complex, the uses for chocolate are seemly endless.


Basic Inspirations, Take 1


Part I Vanilla

The vanilla bean is the seed of the orchid, how elegant and sexy is that?  It is used primarily in baking, perfume, and aromatherapy.  It has a strong, rich floral aroma that is both sweet and mildly earthy, it is well balanced and mellow: it is not too soft or too strong, it is not cloyingly floral, it is not too heavy or woody.  The term French vanilla refers to how the bean is used, rather than a particular species of bean.  French vanilla means a strong floral aroma combined with yolks, hence French Vanilla ice cream.

This seed pod is very precious, precarious, and delicate.  Outside of its natural habit, the vanilla flower has to be cultivated by hand because only one species of bee pollinates the flower.  Additionally, the flowers will only live for one day before they die.  Thus, this window for pollination is excruciatingly small, a one shot chance.  This means that the vanilla vine has to be monitored daily to detect when there flower develops and is ready for reproduction.  The vine does not flower all at once, individual flowers will form at their own speed.

Once the plant has been properly pollinated, it takes 6 months for the vanilla bean to reach maturity,  again requiring daily attention as each seed matures at different rate.  Once maturity has been reached, the pods must be picked by hand because they are so gentle.  This whole process is tender, attentive, and laborious.

This is the first step on the train ride before the seeds are ready for the market.  After an extensive 4 step curing and fermentation process that takes about 7 months, the now fragrant vanilla bean is packaged and ready to be graded and priced based on size and moisture.  Average bulk price per pound of grade A beans, about 120 beans, is $130. Beans sold to the consumer is about $8 per bean. The only spice more expensive is Saffron.

The four cultivators are Bourbon-Madagascar (representing 75% of the market), Mexican, Tahitian, and West Indian.  The picky vanilla plant will only grow between 10 and 20 degrees north and south of the equator.

The arduous bean must be stored in vacuum sealed packaging, or in an air tight glass vital for up to 8 months.  After over a year of development, this demanding bean will be optimal for use for just a little over half of that time, given that it is stored properly.  If not vacuumed sealed, the bean will last 2 months.

The vanilla bean is quite extraordinary. Once you split open this long, thin, dark brown pod you are bombarded with a zillion almost microscopic seeds.  It is seemingly impossible how intricate the inside of this sleek slip is.  This audacious bean has penetrated the market so all encompassing because of how amazing and universal the flavor is.  The story and development of this bean is truly amazing.  I am still trying to figure out how vanilla came to describe something boring and plain, when the flavor is so exquisite and it’s history so exotic.

Basic Inspirations in Detail

Vanilla and chocolate, both ubiquitous in desserts the world over, are native to Mexico.   These two ingredients are fascinating that they considered common given how labor intensive and rare they are.  They were originally cultivated by the Mayans, brought to outside world after the Columbus incident, developed into tasty treats by the French, made widely available by the industrial revolution.  The infamous Hernan Cortés is credited with bring both of these ingredients to the outside world.  The legacy of these flavors lives on, surpassing the fame of this conquistador, being a lasting link to a long dead civilization.

The history of these ingredients are long and bloody. It begins with the Aztecs equating the shelling of the cacao seeds with the scarifying of the human heart, and escalating into civilizations of slavery, plantations of forced labor, generations of exploration, and now with child labor violations.  Delicious.

We take these flavors for granted when in reality they have been consumed for thousands of years, have traveled the globe, and have extreme and laborious growing and production processes. Over the next two posts, Marigold is going to dive into detail about these amazing ingredients.