Friday, November 21, 2014

Desperately Seeking Wonka

My tastes are uninterestingly conventional in most matters, whether in durable goods, consumables, affections, or activities: utterly bourgeois without redeeming depraved fetishes. I like to think my taste in movies and literature is good, but it’s not ultra-refined by any means: I’m seldom in art movie houses and science fiction occupies a disproportionate share of my bookshelf space. I’m neither a wine, beer, nor coffee connoisseur. Nonetheless, I try to avoid lapsing into reverse snobbery, which is always a temptation for those who don’t fully appreciate some of the finer things. We all know this sort of snob: the emphatic man-of-the-people proud to disdain wine and art collectors (among others) as effete elitists with too much money and too little sense of proportion. This snobbery is as unfair as the elitist kind. Great art, science, and craft really do go into the production of wines, and it is admirable to be an enthusiast who has learned enough to appreciate even tiny nuances and distinctions. I just don’t happen to be one of them. I use wine as an example precisely because wine appreciation, while still not entirely exoteric, has gone more mainstream in the US in recent decades – certainly more so than the 1970s when cheap sangria counted as a chic beverage at most parties.

The mainstreaming of upscale products is not confined to wine, of course; numerous products have followed the same path, thereby aiding mightily the profits of suppliers. Mineral waters, for instance, have been around pretty much forever, but during the 1970s they were very much a minority taste; the tap was fine for the vast majority. Bottled water more expensive than gasoline caught on with a larger public afterward. In the same way, there always have been connoisseurs of beer, but specialty beers and microbreweries didn’t really start denting Anheuser-Busch sales until a couple decades ago. Need what happened to coffee shops even be mentioned?

What brings this to mind is, of all things, the jar of leftover Halloween candies I raided a few minutes ago. I rarely get trick-or-treaters but want to be prepared just in case, so there are always leftover Halloween candies. While plucking out a Hershey chocolate bar from the jar, it occurred to me that chocolate might be poised to be the next big thing in the mainstreaming of the upscale. It has all the proper hallmarks. It is a widely enjoyed flavor in its common forms; it is in fact the most popular single dessert and snack flavor. There already is – and always has been – a minority of aficionados willing to pay extraordinary sums for the finest chocolate products. There are and always have been specialty makers and shops. Regional soils and climate affect taste. Chocolate differs according to bean type, cocoa butter content, sugar content, dairy content, weather, and even the local water. Heating and cooling methods profoundly affect texture. So, there is much for a specialist to know.

I’ve tried and liked expensive craft chocolates from several countries, but, as in so many other things, I am a barbarian; I’m satisfied enough with a mass produced Nestlé or Hershey bar to be reluctant to pay the high cost of craft products. However, I can appreciate that others do appreciate the difference enough to shell out for it. Perhaps we are only awaiting the right chain of upscale chocolate shops (Ishmael’s?) to bring a larger public on board.

Have you ever tried a cocoa bean (aka cacao) in its raw state? Don’t. It’s like a foul bitter chunk of stringy wood, which isn’t surprising since the beans grow right out of the bark of trees rather than on the tips of twigs as one might expect. Forastero, Trinitario, Criollo, and Nacional are the four major bean types. Forastero is the one most commonly used in mass produced chocolate because of its high yield. When harvested the beans are thrown on the ground and left to rot – on purpose. They ferment there which brings out the first hints of chocolate flavor. Weather strongly affects how the fermentation happens, so there are vintage equivalents, with some years preferred over others for each region. After fermentation, if you roast the beans, crush them, and mix them in hot water you have the original chocolatl of the Olmecs, Mayans, and Mexica (Aztecs). This is an interesting but not very pleasant drink. Chocolatl means bitter water, and so it is; moreover the cocoa butter (fat) tends to separate thereby giving the drink an oily/gravelly texture. When introduced to Europe it became a novelty drink and it remained that for a few hundred years.

The breakthrough came in 1828 when Van Houten in the Netherlands used a special press to crush the beans to fine powder called Dutch cocoa. This also squeezed out most of the cocoa butter in a much smoother state. Experimenters then mixed the smooth cocoa butter back with the powder, added sugar, and created modern chocolate. Fry & Sons in England began producing chocolate bars in 1847. In Switzerland in 1875 Daniel Peter produced milk chocolate by adding Nestlé powdered milk. Dark and milk chocolates have competed ever since. Local differences in milk and milk fat content affect flavor. Some producers still use powder and others (especially in the UK and US) liquid milk.

There is more to chocolate than flavor. Chocolate contains caffeine, cannabinoids, and theobromine, all of which are psychoactive and may account for some of the pleasure we take in it. Health benefits are claimed for chocolate. If they exist they are probably due to the antioxidants in the beans.

So, all the complexity and craftsmanship that go into chocolate-making should be enough to induce a broader base of connoisseurs (Wonkateers?) to bid up prices and debate star ratings. As for me, though, the Hershey’s is gone and I’m going back to the jar for a Nestlé’s Crunch.

Cadbury ad


  1. Pretty funny using Genesis with the Cadbury ad, I love that band by the way. I'm like you, although I enjoy some of the refined and cultured media, I think my taste are more mainstream. I've seen and enjoyed Citizen Kane, Diva, and some Criterion films, and other such fare, but I don't always actively seek them out. I sort of will watch one to enhance my taste rather than consume them constantly.

    I feel I'm a little more refined in my musical taste, but others might just think it's garbage. I just as soon eat a hamburger most of the time, but don't because it's not all that good for you.

    Last weekend on Rick Bayless' PBS cooking show he showed how Mexicans make cocoa, without the milk. Still looked good to me because I'm a chocaholic, but rather than making it from scratch, I just as soon reach for the instant.

    1. It's hard not to like chocolate. If I want to have chocolate in the house for some reason but want not to eat it, I have to get some with coconut I don't like coconut.