Rosenblum: Chocolate

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Mort Rosenblum, Chocolate : A Bittersweet Saga of Dark and Light. New York : North Point Press, 2005. 290 pages.

I hesitated, briefly, to included this volume on chocolate among all our more science-y titles but then, I thought, who doesn't like chocolate? This is indeed a social history, not a scientific work, but it reveals and demystifies much of the history, economics, sociology, and technology that get involved between the time the cacao pods are harvested and we consume some chocolate in one or another of its myriad forms.

Besides, I thought again, would a mere social history, with no scientific relevance, mention phenylethylamines (p. 36)? Not likely, and the author does not try to avoid the science when it comes up, nor does he dilute it beyond recognition. Rather, he meets it head-on and without anxiety. That's what we think marks good scienticity.

Most scientific knowledge of T. cacao's effect on the human body remains based on hypothesis [i.e., not on experiment]. [p. 42]

For instance, here's some history to get the story going; Rosenblum takes the time for a little science moment in describing the essential technique of conching.

The first breakthrough came in 1828, in Holland. Coenrad Van Houten found a way to extract cocoa butter and then make powder from the remaining mass. By blending some of the separated cocoa butter with sugar and adding it to the powder, he could mold chocolate.

In 1875, after eight years of trying, the Swiss inventor Daniel Peter worked out a way to combine milk with chocolate. He was helped by Henri Nestlé, whose dabbling in dairy science evolved into the largest food empire on earth. No one had been able to mix fat in chocolate with water in milk. Nestlé condensed milk, eliminating the water.

Another Swiss, Rodolphe Lindt, took chocolate to a higher plane. He developed the technique of conching—named for the shell-shaped troughs he used—which brings out chocolate's true texture and taste. A heavy roller moves back and forth through the molten chocolate to break down and blend the components while releasing acetic acid and other unwanted volatile elements. Mainly, the process allows full flavor to develop in the mixture. Lindt's original procedure took several days, and serious conching still does. [p. 16]

I also would commend the author for his skeptical and clear-headed, analytical approach to investigating rumors and allegations about "child slave labor" in Ivory Coast, a subject that has garnered its share of hysterical reactions.

The book reads like a series of closely connected essays on the subject of Theobroma cacao, the species of plant from which we get chocolate by means of complicated and delicate horticulture and processing of the raw material. There is, among others, Columbus returning the first cacao to Europe; Aztecs and Conquistadors in abundance; African civil wars and cacao plantations that disrupt lives and the chocolate industry; the fierce but silent battles for ascendancy between professional chocolatiers in France and Belgium; Milton Hershey and American chocolate; how to taste great chocolate and who thinks what tastes best; and what makes great chocolate anyway.

Switzerland still leads the charts in chocolate consumption. According to statistics compiled in 2000 by Belgian researchers and distributed by the American Chocolate Manufacturers Association, the Swiss consumed 22.36 pounds per capita, followed by the Austrians at 10.13, the Irish at 19.47, and the Germans at 18.04. The British, Norwegians, and Danes fell in the range of 17 pounds. Belgians came further behind, at 13.16, followed by Australians and then Swedes.

Americans' per capita chocolate consumption was 11.64, just over half the Swiss figure. The French came just behind, at 11.38. The Italians averaged only 6.13 pounds.

Such comparative figures require a bit of scrutiny. To begin with, researchers tally "chocolate confections" and not the main ingredient itself. Also, while the Swiss buy a lot of their singular style of chocolate, many purchases are by foreign visitors dazzled by an old reputation that refuses to wither away. But there is more to it than that. in these globalized times, it is hard to know what's in a number. [pp. 228—229]

It can also be read as a personal adventure as the author moves from chocolate naif to chocolate sophisticate by becoming an aficionado and learning whatever he can about how chocolate is prepared so that he can develop a knowledgeable way to taste with discrimination. Fortunately, as he shares his adventure, he avoids snobbery in favor of honestly sharing his excitement at learning.

During 2004, prices fell in the range of fifty dollars a pound for top-level [French] chocolatiers with shops of their own. For candy, that is a lot. For a recreational drug, that seems pretty cheap. [p. 171]

Although it was a small thing, I did notice the publisher's attention to detail in choosing to print the book with dark brown ink on slightly chocolate-colored paper. It helped one taste the subject--metaphorically speaking, of course.

I liked the book. The author's writing was informative, engaging, often evocative of his tasty subject, and caused no indigestion in the reading. Oh, and I learned about chocolate, too.

-- Notes by JNS

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