Hello and good day!
Cacao grows on trees around the world within a band of twenty degrees north and south of the equator. It is native to the Amazon jungle but now grows on almost every continent.
The fruit looks like a brightly colored American football hanging from the branches of trees. The husk on the fruit is thick, like the husk of a pumpkin or squash.
Inside the pod, there are 30-40 seeds which are the size of big grapes. The seeds are covered in a sugary white gel called mucilage and you can slurp the mucilage off the seeds. It is delicious, sugary and citrusy.
However, a cacao seed itself right out of the pod is essentially inedible. You can force yourself to eat it and it won't kill you, but it does not taste good at all. The flavor reminds me of chewing a fruit peel, like a banana or an orange peel.
Imagine taking a big old piece of orange peel and just eating it straight. That is kind of what it is like to bite into a fresh cacao seed.
This is why cacao needs to be fermented.
The mucilage on the outside of the seed is very sugary and when exposed to the air, environmental yeast spores fall on it. With sugar and yeast, you now have the necessary prerequisites for fermentation. At this point, I'd like to point out that we have a flavor influence present right from the very beginning that needs to be combatted.
It is the natural bitterness of the cacao seed. If fermentation is not done well, this flavor will follow that seed all the way into the end product.
Now something truly extraordinary.
Fermentation makes cacao taste like chocolate. Think about that.
Cacao does not taste like chocolate at all without human intervention. The pulp is sweet and citrusy. The seeds taste like a fruit peel. And yet, if you put the wet seeds in a receptacle and cut off oxygen, thereby causing the yeast to eat the sugar, the seeds will be transformed into something chocolatey.
It is phenomenal that humans know how to do this. It isn't intuitive.
If you do the fermentation right, the bitterness will disappear. But now you run into another problem. Fermentation creates vinegar and alcohol, and these are big time flavor obstacles to navigate.
Nobody wants to eat vinegary chocolate. However, the very process of making cacao taste like chocolate is a very vinegary undertaking.
When you take cacao out of a fermenter box, the smell of vinegar and the heat created from chemical reactions hits you in the face and makes you squint your eyes and pucker your lips.
Chocolate wouldn't be very popular if it caused that reaction when you eat it, so something needs to be done about this.
There are two ways to go.
You can take your fermented cacao and throw it out under the sun to dry. When you do this, the fermented mucilage hardens into a brittle brown shell, and this is the state of cacao when it is exported.
The problem with proceeding in this way is that the hard shell traps in a lot of the vinegar flavors and aromas that were created during the fermentation process.
This is a very tricky conundrum. You can't avoid the vinegar because it is a byproduct of the process that makes chocolate taste like chocolate.
And you need to dry cacao in order for it to be exported. But drying cacao traps the vinegar in.
What to do?
The big industrial chocolate making companies solve this conundrum through dark roasting, vanilla, and synthetic flavoring.
If you roast cacao dark enough, all that remains is the flavor of the roast. The vinegar aromas will be burned away, but so will all of the natural, delicious cacao flavors that make a very, very good chocolate possible.
Most of the dark chocolate we are all used to tastes like dark roasted cacao cut with vanilla. It creates the generic dark chocolate flavor we are all familiar with, think Hershey's Special Dark.
I'm not going to say anything bad against Hershey's Special Dark.
If I were to say something bad about it, it would be aimed more at their cacao sourcing practices rather than the product itself.
The supply chain that leads to that product is not good for the cacao farmers who supply the cacao. It traps them in poverty and sets the stage for child slavery.
As far as the product itself goes, it tastes good for what it is-------Candy.
You can hire engineers to make something taste good. That is how a lot of our food producing companies make money.
But as far as chocolate goes, Hershey's Special Dark is not a good example of what really good chocolate tastes like.
That can only be achieved by harnessing the natural flavors and aromas that are in the cacao's genetics and reinforced by the terroir. This means that you are prohibited from using a dark roast to wash away vinegar.
In some cases, you may want to use a dark roast to accentuate flavors, and this is a prevalent technique, especially for French chocolate companies.
However, in this case, you aren't using the roast to wash away the vinegar. The roast is serving a different purpose.
All that being the case, what is the answer to the riddle?
How do we create the conditions that allow us to manage vinegar and acidity without losing the notes we want to keep?
I will have to answer this tomorrow as I am running out of space in today's email. But I will leave you with a teaser. You must let the cacao rest.
More to come tomorrow.
Thank you so much for your time today.
I hope that you have a truly blessed day!
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