I am Dr. Chocolate. In 2008, I earned a PhD from the University of Washington by studying chocolate. Now, I am on the hunt for the best chocolate in the world.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Cocoa in the raw

I'm writing this post from an Amtrak train, on my way from Seattle to Portland. I'll be spending the weekend at a Capture the Flag Tournament in a caldera near Fort Rock, Oregon. Since we'll be camping in a volcano, I left my laptop at home and so have to write this by hand, using paper and pen. It feels wonderfully archaic.

If I were to put this page in front of you, say, if I scanned it and posted it as a pdf on my blog, I think 99% of you would lose interest very rapidly, and the 1% that would not would be the  cryptologists. For these words, written on a somewhat bumpy and swerving train, are hard for even me to read, and the page itself is not very beautiful, ripped as it was out of a spiral-bound notebook. But then I will type it onto a computer when I get to Portland, using this very nice blogging technology provided by Google, and while the words themselves will not be different, they will be transformed into something more legible than this scrawl, and become an object worth consuming.

Chocolate - or cocoa, rather - undergoes its own kind of magical transformation, one that also makes it more legible, as it were. This is one of the aspects of the cocoa-chocolate commodity chain that fascinates and intrigues me, one that made me study the thing for years. Because faced with a raw cocoa bean - and I mean truly raw, as in straight from the pod - I don't think it would hold our interest for very long. Not with all the competition it has today, from much more immediately gratifying foods.

Raw cocoa beans can look almost freakishly gross, and they don't taste anything like chocolate. The sweet pulp that covers them is quite refreshing, but the beans themselves don't have all that much going for them. Even after they undergo on-farm processing and are fermented and dried, cocoa beans would probably not rank high for most of us as something we'd like to eat.

Fermented cocoa is bitter, very bitter, and while if you eat enough of it you can get a sort of buzz, I doubt there are many with the fortitude or patience to accomplish that - there are many more pleasant ways to get high than eating a crapload of cocoa beans. While we do sprinkle nibs (de-husked and crushed beans) on things nowadays because it is culinarily fashionable, and because they actually do highlight certain flavors when used in moderation (in salads, pancakes, granola), it is the rare person who wants to consume any appreciable amount on its own.

But later in its lifetime, you will love that bean. Your mouth will water to think of the first melty bite, you may even physically crave it. Certainly, it will invoke some kind of emotional response. When it matures into its final form, most often a flat brown rectangle, so slim and glossy and decadent, and you get close enough to breathe in its scent, that piece of chocolate will intoxicate you. Not a high, though - more like a love.

How does this happen? That for me, is one of the special magics of chocolate. That a thing so inelegant, tasteless, and even off-putting in its early life becomes so luscious and desirable in its final form that it drives not only an entire industry, but a cultural rapture.

Don't get me wrong - I love everything about the cocoa tree, I just wouldn't want to eat a whole lot of cocoa beans. I also don't know that I would have had the determination or foresight to spend time figuring out how to transform them, if I had been an Olmec or Mayan ancient. But that we as a species put in that effort, that we believed in the tree enough to make chocolate out of a gooey white bean is a wondrous thing.

Each bite of chocolate carries in it that history - of hundreds if not thousands of transformations from bean to bar, over the millennia and through the hands of countless individuals. For the most part, that history stays hidden. It becomes visible only if we pause to reflect on what it takes to make an irresistible piece of decadence out of something so naturally un-compelling, and to honor the efforts of the many who saw a beautiful potential inside each little bean.

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