Magazine article Sunset

From Beans to Bars

Magazine article Sunset

From Beans to Bars

Article excerpt

Cocoa trees grow in a tropical belt that undulates across the equator around the world; production areas include Central and South America, the Caribbean, Africa, Southeast Asia, and, for the last decade, Hawaii.

The cocoa (also called cacao) tree, Theobroma cacao, has two main varieties, Criollo and Forastero. Criollo cocoa trees, which are finicky, are planted on a limited scale and sparingly produce beans highly valued for their aroma, essential oils, and complexity Criollos, native to Venezuela, grow in South and Central America, Southeast Asia, and Hawaii.

Forastero cocoa trees, on the other hand, flourish readily and are very fruitful, producing 90 percent of the world's cocoa beans-but the beans are less distinctive than Criollo beans. The top producers are in Africa (Republic of Cote d'Ivoire, Ghana, Nigeria, and Cameroon), Indonesia, Malaysia, Ecuador, and Brazil.

Once extracted from pods that grow on the trees, cocoa beans are put through a natural fermentation process, then sun-dried.

In the hands of the manufacturer, they become chocolate: Roasting deepens their color and flavor. Heavy rollers crush them into a dark, gooey chocolate liquor that's roughly half cocoa solids (which give the chocolate its unique flavors) and half cocoa butter (which makes chocolate meltin-your-mouth smooth). The liquor is flavored with sugar, vanilla, lecithin (an emulsifier), and other ingredients. Then for hours, or even days, this coarse mass is kneaded until it is an aromatic, thick, silky liquid. This critical step-called conching-determines a chocolate's texture.

Finally, a warm river of molten dark chocolate flows into molds to cool into shiny slabs for eating or cooking.

A few manufacturers, such as Hawaiian Vintage (Hawaii), El Rey (Venezuela), and Valrhona (France), produce chocolate from specific cocoa beans and specific locations (estates or appellations-think wine), and some of the facts are on the label. The majority of chocolate, however, is a blend of varieties, and the formulas are trademarked secrets. But sophistication of processing is becoming an important part of the chocolate scene, especially here in the West. A few manufacturers are customizing chocolate to bring out more complexity in flavors, like John Scharffenberger and Robert Steinberg at Sharffen Berger in South San Francisco. …

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