How Chocolate Covered the Globe
Two cheers for Hernán Cortés. He may have bullied Montezuma and victimized the Aztecs, but he gave the rest of us chocolate. First cultivated by the Olmec Indians more than 1,000 years ago, the beans of the cocoa plant were used by the locals to produce a bitter but bracing drink that the conquistadors took to immediately. They called it “chocolate,” a corruption of the Aztecxocolatl (“bitter water”).
For nearly a century, chocolate was a secret jealously guarded by the Spanish crown. It was not until 1606 that an Italian merchant named Antonio Carletti laid hands on a supply of the magic beans and introduced them in his homeland, then the most gastronomically advanced region of Europe. A few decades later, when King Louis XIII of France took a Spanish Habsburg bride—deceptively named Anne of Austria—hot chocolate became the beverage of choice in French aristocratic circles, eventually trickling down to the wealthy bourgeoisie.
As the 17th century progressed, and France supplanted Italy as the culinary superpower, the taste for chocolate spread throughout Europe (and back to the New World) in a variety of forms far richer and more diverse than the “bitter water” of the Aztecs. In a sense, the Aztecs were to chocolate what the Chinese were to gunpowder; they developed a remarkable product but gave it only a limited application. Europeans would later seize upon it and exploit it on a far grander scale—though, in the case of chocolate, peacefully.
Perhaps because it is mildly addictive, chocolate has attracted fans in a way that few other foodstuffs can rival. When was the last time you heard someone described as a “vanillaholic”? There is even an extensive body of writing dedicated to musing on chocolate and its effects. The humorist Miranda Ingram claims that “it’s not that chocolates are a substitute for love. Love is a substitute for chocolate.” The early-19th-century gastronome Brillat-Savarin once asserted that “carefully prepared chocolate is as healthful a food as it is pleasant, that it is nourishing and easily digested, that it is above all helpful to people who must do a great deal of mental work.” Science now backs him up.
It comes as no surprise, then, that the choco latier occupies a place of honor in culinary circles. To become a master requires several skill sets—those of the craftsman and decorator, of course, and also the architect: Think of those elaborate chocolate center pieces and edible trophies at high-end parties. The chemist’s skills are also needed: Chocolate bean varieties from South America, Africa and the West Indies have distinct characters and uses and must be fermented, roasted, blended, refined, milled and measured for differing levels of cocoa butter and sugar content and then be made to interact with elaborate fillings and liqueurs. Chocolate is a world unto itself.
Chocolatier and pastry chef Ewald Notter offers a guide to this world in “The Art of the Chocolatier” (Wiley, 407 pages, $65), capturing in a single authoritative and lavishly illustrated volume the full range of his subject. He explains the differing grades of chocolate and describes its many forms and presentations, including “pure” and milk chocolates, icing, mousse, caramels and foams. He lists the equipment that a chocolate- obsessed cook might need (immersion blender, spray gun, even acetylene torch) and describes the techniques and recipes for making everything from chocolate candy to complex praline and marzipan compositions. For the valorous, he shows how to confect three-dimensional chocolate valentines, bouquets, hummingbirds and . . . a spacecraft.
Even addicts who are interested in consumption rather than creation will find “The Art of the Chocolatier” fascinating. One has only to gaze upon the book’s photo sequence of a mundane sheet of white chocolate being made into a magnificent blossoming rose to feel a pleasure akin to touching and tasting the thing itself. Mr. Notter introduces the unfamiliar, like Knackerli—small, chocolate-based candies of Middle European origin topped with hazelnuts, caramelized almonds, pistachios, raisins, apricots and cranberries. For the less adventurous, especially those who would like to foster “natural” eating habits while fulfilling the demands of a sweet tooth, there is even a recipe for homemade chocolate granola bars.