The science of good chocolate

Chocolate Makes Everything Better

Let us decode the terroir of chocolate and work towards safeguarding the cacao plant that gives us the sweet dark treat. The flavor of chocolate depends on several factors, from the soil the cacao plant was grown in, to the length of time the cocoa beans are fermented. 

The nuances of smell and taste in the cacao plant, whose pulp-covered seeds, once processed, become cocoa and chocolate. Understanding and relaying to chocolate eaters are not only the biological characteristics of the plant, but also the sensorial ones. Such references help illuminate a wide variety of flavours inherent in cacao, that, when properly nurtured, will carry over into the final product!

The smell of the dried leaf contains traces of baled hay, while the fresh one offers up bright and vegetal aromas. Both can be found in chocolate. By continuously reaching for more flavour experiences, we can find greater depth in chocolate, a substance that is far more complex than most people realize.

 A good piece of chocolate is like a good piece of music. It contains something memorable that stays on your mind for the entire day!

Most of us do not recognize the nuance because we grew up on confections characterized by sweetness and one dominant chocolatey note that do determine consistency when we reach out to any brand!  So cocoa beans hold a symphony of flavours, from roasted hazelnuts and fresh violets to tart cherries and green apples. These hints exist, to some degree, in all cocoa, but are highlighted in more specialized craft chocolates.

The flavours found within such bars are the result of a range of factors, from soil and climate to microbial activity during the fermentation process. Collectively, these elements make up chocolate’s terroir.

This taste of place is built on the foundational ingredient cacao, a pod-shaped fruit that was domesticated 3,600 years ago. For most of its history, the plant was grouped into three categories loosely based on historical and visual characteristics. Every single one of those cocoa beans has a genetic flavour potential.

Once harvested, the pulp-covered cacao seeds are fermented. Before this process, the seeds are bitter and taste nothing like chocolate. Cacao ferments for anywhere from three to eight days, usually heaped under banana leaves or jute sacks, or enclosed in wooden boxes and trays or wicker baskets. The beans are, in essence, cooking, as the pulp around the seeds gets gobbled up by the yeasts that are present in the air and on the surfaces the pulp comes in contact with.

They convert the sugar in the cacao pulp to ethanol, while bacteria generate lactic acid (the acid that sours milk) and acetic acid (the kind that turns grape juice into wine, then vinegar). The goal is to ensure the cacao is fully cooked so that the astringency and off-flavours that do emerge when lactic and acetic acids that are formed get eliminated!

The history and cultural importance of our most beloved tastes, paying homage to the ingredients that give us daily pleasure, while providing a thoughtful wake-up call to the homogenization that is threatening the diversity of our food supply.

Through fermentation, the cellular structure of the seed changes and aroma compounds start to develop. This process is the biggest driver of flavour. It is like adopting a baby, where you can make [a great] impact on the expression of genetic potential. By the time a chocolate maker receives cocoa beans, it can be likened to adopting a teenager, where the personality has been expressed already. All you can do in terms of change is to make small tweaks!

These “tweaks” are roasting, milling and adding ingredients, such as sugar and milk powder, to the cocoa mass.

Systematically exploring how terroir impacts flavour in chocolate. The sensory scientist discovered that fruity flavours in cocoa and chocolate are strongly related to how the beans are fermented, while floral flavours are more closely tied to the genetics of the crop.

The varieties of cocoa that the group is bringing to the fore are defined as “fine or flavour”—celebrated for genetic diversity and flavours that are intended to be drawn out of the cocoa and highlighted in chocolate.

In order to sustain the future of chocolate, we have to better value the people who create it. Our work must come back to what can we do to empower the cocoa producers who wake up every morning and go to their fields.  Otherwise, these farmers many of whom live in extreme poverty will turn to other crops or find alternate ways to earn a living.

 That would be a gastronomic loss for the world. There is so much behind a good piece of chocolate.  There is a back story involving the genetics, the sense of place, the terroir, the tradition, culture and history.

By having these stories told and understood and celebrated one hopes the market for more diverse chocolates will grow and the farmers behind the bar will be fully recognized and rewarded. Without that compensation and support, the amazing flavours that we are only just discovering could disappear!

Chocolate is Happiness that you can Eat

Trishna Patnaik
Trishna Patnaik is a BSc (in life sciences) and MBA (in marketing) by qualification but an artist by choice. Previously a corporate professional, she realised that she wanted to do something more meaningful. She found her true calling in her passion, painting. Trishna is now a full-time professional painter based in Mumbai, as well as an art therapist and healer.

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