Chocolate as we know it in pressed blocks, bars or as a coating for sweet fillings is relatively new, only being invented by Joseph Fry of Bristol in 1847.
Until then chocolate was a drink, and a thick, fatty, gritty drink at that, which needed constant stirring to keep it emulsified.
This original drinking chocolate was simply ground up cacao beans, the seeds of Theobroma cacao, sometimes made into pastilles, to which hot water or milk, sugar and spices were added. Mr Fry’s technique was to separate the beans into the fat, known as cocoa butter, and the cocoa solids.
Chocolate bars are made by adding back a proportion of cocoa butter to a greater or lesser proportion of cocoa solids in a complicated process that requires careful milling and exact changes of temperature to create a smooth texture; tempering then encourages the mixture to crystallise and set in a way that gives both snap and shine.
Like coffee and tea plants, the tree that produces cocoa beans is very susceptible to the precise soil and climate in which it grows and thus produces thousands of flavours, reflecting what in other foods is called terroir.
There are three basic types of cacao trees and more and more manufacturers will tell you which of these has been chosen and where it was grown:
Criollo – the acknowledged aristocrat, always producing elegant and refined aromatics and flavours.
Forastero – altogether more robust and rogueish in style, usually giving deeper and wilder flavours.
Trinitario – a naturally occurring hybrid of the above.
As interest in chocolate grows, manufacturers are finding many exciting new varieties and variations and today even forastero-based chocolates can be very sophisticated and stylish.
Good or bad, you are never far from chocolate.
Choose the best
Purists will say chocolate needs only to include cocoa solids, cocoa butter, sugar and, perhaps vanilla: some will insist on including lecithin, a sort of thickener that gives longer life and better integrity to the texture. It’s common for vanilla to be replaced by vanillin, an artificial substitute used to reduce cost.
Whatever the taste, there are two infallible tests to show a quality chocolate that has been carefully made with good ingredients. First, the chocolate must have a noticeable shine, almost mirror like, something obtained only by precise tempering. Second, it must have a definite snap when you break it. Without both of these, you have something inferior, whatever its price. The requirement of a high shine also applies to filled chocolates. It’s harder to see the shine of a milk or white chocolate but dullness will always be its own lesser reward.
The higher the stated cocoa solid content of a bar the deeper and more bitter that chocolate will taste: but high cocoa-solid content does not mean low sugar content and sugar might be amplified as the cocoa solid content is increased. This should be made clear on labelling.
Milk chocolate was traditionally sweeter than dark chocolate and also offered a lower cocoa solids content; much of the enjoyment was the slight caramel taste that the addition of boiled milk gave. Recently milk chocolates have appeared with much higher cocoa solid content.
White chocolate is not really chocolate because it is largely made from cocoa butter and contains no cocoa solids.
Chocolate does not need to be refrigerated but in hot weather or centrally-heated houses, lightly chilled chocolate is nicer to eat. Long term cold storage will make the chocolate bloom with what looks like clouds of mould. This is quite harmless and is unlikely to change its flavour. At a cool, constant temperature chocolate keeps its virtue for many weeks, perhaps months.
The expression ‘cooking chocolate’ is meaningless as all chocolate can be cooked with; it once used to indicate a higher cocoa solid content and less sweetness than mass marketed chocolate bars but as 70% or higher cocoa solid chocolates are now widely available on supermarket shelves you can choose according to your preference. If the chocolate you choose does not give a deep enough colour or flavour, mix in cocoa powder (or cacao qv) until the colour and flavour are more satisfactory.
Gentle pulsing in a microwave is possibly a better way to melt chocolate than over hot water, possibly because it is so much faster; it will be molten even though holding its shape, so use only short bursts and stir often.
Watch our video on how to melt chocolate: