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Monday, April 29, 2013

Chocolate: A Love Story

This blog post is partly inspired by some of the people I know on Google+. Terry posted a lovely photo yesterday of her coffee mug sitting next to a piece of strawberry balsamic chocolate. This picture inspired me to brag that I could go from zero to chocolate in 2.4 seconds, even without the coffee. I am pleased to say that my comment gained me at least one friend yesterday (thank you, Paul!). Then today there was the photo Shinae posted of a Lindt dark chocolate bar with salted caramel. It started quite a conversation between me and Stefanie, who lives in Germany. We started talking about the prices of European chocolates in stores in the USA. We were amazed at the difference in prices between the same products on their home continent compared to here, and she was kind enough to offer to send her friends chocolate care packages. What a kind woman! With friends like that, who needs to worry about running out of the good stuff?

I don't know how old I was when chocolate became a part of my life. If I had truly known how magical and fabulous chocolate is, I still probably wouldn't remember that first experience anyway. But the more I learn about chocolate, the more I admire it. Chocolate came to the rest of the world from the Americas. Chocolate's scientific name is theobroma cacao. Theobroma means food of the gods, and the theobromine in chocolate can do wonderful things for your body like reduce your blood pressure. The Mesoamericans used cacao beans as currency, and it was often made into xocolatl, bitter cold or hot drinks. Montezuma was said to drink fifty cups of chocolatl each day, and his court drank up to two thousand a day! Of course, the cacao beans made their way to Europe where sugar and milk were added, and techniques invented to make the solid chocolate we enjoy today.

Now that all of that serious business is over and done with, let's focus on the fun, shall we? Chocolate is used in so many forms and so many ways, it almost boggles the mind. Some people will put a chunk of dark chocolate into their mole sauce or chili or other savory dishes. Then there are all of the baked goods, luscious cakes and pies and brownies and cookies and pain au chocolat. For a lot of us, the favorite is variations on the chocolate candy or bar. Chocolate is so friendly to humans. It melts at a temperature close to that of our bodies. When we take a piece into our mouth it changes. What was solid now starts to melt and reveal facets of its character. It may be bitter and high in cacao content. Or sweet milk chocolate. Depending on its quality and ingredients, it may seem waxy or grainy or silky or sugary. There is, it seems, a chocolate for just about everyone's taste. 

When I stop to think about the different types of chocolates my mouth has savored and liked, and sometimes even loved, I am amazed at how many things we can pair it with. For example, a good dark chocolate with a raspberry puree filling could convince me to skip whatever my next meal might be and just go straight for the sweets. It goes well with numerous fruits like strawberries, cherries, orange, mango, pineapple...well, I could just go on and on. And nuts, nougats, crispy things, and chewy ones. And there is something magical about the combination of chocolate with a buttery, creamy caramel that makes you realize that the name food of the gods is totally appropriate. And there's the humble, everyday chocolates that we can indulge in more frequently. I freely admit to eating and enjoying things like M&Ms and various candy bars. They are sweet treats that may be a little oasis in our day.

As I write this, I remember something that happened to me years ago. A specialty shop had opened about a block away from the bank where I worked, and they sold beautiful Belgian chocolates and chocolate bars. It was fantastic, not too sweet, not too bitter, and delightfully silky in texture. I was filled with chocolate joy as I selected several bars to give to my office mates. They were very pleased that I had given them something so decadent and extravagant, and immediately started eating their chocolate gifts. I was surrounded by the bliss of chocolate-induced oohs and ahhs when suddenly the bubble burst. A woman in the office proclaimed loudly, "I don't see what the big deal is. I can't tell the difference between this and a Hershey bar. My mom might like this, but chocolate is just chocolate." Just chocolate? Yes, I had cast my pearls before swine, and they were being trampled underfoot. Of course, my smart mouth shot off, "Give it back. If you can't tell the difference, you shouldn't be eating it." Of course I didn't take the chocolate back. I was just shocked at what I thought was a rude comment, and unfortunately I was rude right back. She ended up giving it to her mother. I'm glad it went from one true appreciator of the food of the gods to another!