Profligate Visions? Sinful Decadence? Spanish Fly?
The Gods Never Had It So Good!

Review © by Burton Kaplan

The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural & Natural History of Cacao with Recipes
Maricel E. Presilla
Ten Speed Press, Berkeley, Calif.
(also distributed in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, Southeast Asia, and the United Kingdom and Europe)
208 pp, hdbk, US$29.95
ISBN 1-58008-143-6

The New Taste of Chocolate Of the great cultural developments of western man only a handful surpass National Geographic's startling late-20th century discovery that Caucasian women have breasts. Arguably chief among these is Cortés' 16th century eureka moment on tasting "chocolate" (then a frothy mixture of roasted cacao beans, red pepper, vanilla, and water).

The intervening half millennium has seen colonies flourish on it, poetry sung of it, politics scourged by it, not to mention innocence sacrificed to it. Whether this leads you to conclude that chocolate's history is as colorful as Presilla would have us believe or as anguished as the novels of Jorge Amado depict is beside the point. No matter your perspective, here, clearly, is the stuff of apocrypha. Chocolate is as close as this earthly paradise of ours is likely ever to approach the mystique of manna. Happily, Presilla has given us a book worthy of so utterly compelling a notoriety. Not since Alexis Lichine's groundbreaking work on the wines of France, in the 1950s, has a title so engagingly lifted a corner on the fascinations of one of the world's favorite comestibles.

Sugar, vanilla, and cacao – the heady appeal of modern-day chocolate is not easily predicted from a knowledge of its ingredients. Little wonder famed Swedish taxonomist Carolus Linnaeus, himself a chocolate lover, chose in mid-18th century to assign the cacao tree to a species of 122 he designated Theobroma, food of the gods.

Cacao, mesoamerican in its genesis, now grows worldwide in a narrow band stretching from 20 degrees south of the Equator to 20 degrees north. Its origins appear to be Olmec (1500 to 400 B.C.E.). Alongside deceased Maya dignitaries were buried jars and bowls for chocolate. The identification of the Mixe-Zoquean word ka-ka-w in the inscriptions on these was a breakthrough in deciphering the phonetic language of the Maya. The importance of the beverage to these early peoples, and later to the Aztecs, was profound. It was the drink of the elite and warriors, a means to display wealth, offered up to the gods in rites, and an emollient to anoint newborns in a ceremony resembling baptism.

Cacao reached the Old World by 1544. In 1585 it was a commodity of trade. First sold in London in 1657, it soon begat chocolate houses, which Charles II banned in 1675 on the grounds that these were hotbeds of dangerous political ferment. Italians in the 17th century used it to flavor savory as well as sweet dishes including sorbets and ice creams. It was also in Italy that chocolate reached fame as a vehicle of poison. Pope Clement XIV, who suppressed the chocolate-loving Jesuits in 1773, was widely believed to have been poisoned by way of a bowl of chocolate one year later. Meanwhile, in France, the Marquis de Sade was serving chocolate pastilles laced with cantharides.

Chocolate candy awaited a 19th century Dutch process, van Houten's, first to remove excess cocoa butter then to add back measured amounts to the bean grindings and sugar to form a velvet-smooth paste which hardens at room temperature but melts easily in the mouth. The technology of chocolate has changed little since.

Much of the natural and some of the cultural history Presilla delivers in these pages has appeared elsewhere, though she gives it fresh coherence, a winning personal touch, vivid illustration, and adds lessons on chocolate appreciation and selection and a directory of chocolate companies, classes, and tours. Her greatest contribution, however, is not historical but forward looking, a portent of what is certain to affect serious consumer taste in the years ahead.

Hers is the first substantial account of the very recent emergence and early development of what she calls, "exclusive-derivation chocolates." Analogous to varietal wines grown and bottled on a delimited property, these are unblended commercial chocolates labeled to identify the geographic origins of the informing cacao beans or the names of the estates or plantations on which the beans were grown.

What most distinguishes the flavor of one unblended chocolate from another arises first from the plants from which the cacao pods are taken. Varieties called criollo and trinitario are the two most distinguished. Forastero is less complex in flavor but in far more plentiful worldwide supply. Other factors affecting taste are the soil on which the trees grow, the environment of the farm, and the drying and fermentation practices of the grower. "The individual nuances of a particular bean handled in a particular way," Presilla reports, "register clearly on the palate." Of the single derivation chocolates she discusses in terms of color, aroma, flavor, and texture, Valrhona's Noir de Domaine Gran Couva (from trinitario beans produced on an old Corsican estate near the village of Gran Couva), appears to be the Romanée-Conti of its kind.

To produce the 23 voluptuous never-seen-before recipes that close her book–among these Estela Pérez's Mole Xalapeño and Mary Cech's Chocolate-Coconut Soup with Fresh Bananas and Honey-Cocoa Wafers - Presilla gathered chocolate mavens of distinguished pedigree. These include chefs, artisans, confectioners, pâtissières, culinary educators, and my good friend and author, Dr. Harold McGee. It was the suave decadence of Harold's beguiling prescription for Chocolate-Cheese Truffles that I found entirely irresistible ... or almost so. The prospect of a taste sensation flickering from sweet to savory and back lent new meaning to my notion of alternating current. But contrary to the good doctor's suggested pairing with a Banyuls, I hastened to decant a ripe vintage Port.

His sinful culinary alchemy is simplicity itself: a bit of melted chocolate, some sugar, and four ounces of moist Humboldt Fog. Within a quarter of an hour of the get-go, only one thing stood between me and the buttery barnyard tang of Harold's creamy conceit, and that was a visit to my mailbox.

Who knows, I said to my irrepressibly gluttonous self as I fumbled with the combination lock, my mind slightly delirious with profligate visions of the chocolate, cheese, and dessert wine awaiting me. Perhaps among the usual notices and bills I might find my copy of the latest issue of National Geographic.

November 2001

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