This is the pod of the cocoa tree and is the beginning of a chocolate treat. However, there are many steps involved before a bitter cocoa bean becomes delectable chocolate.
I will never forget the first time (and the last time) I sampled unsweetened baking chocolate. It seemed like a good idea. After all, it looked like chocolate and smelled like chocolate. Surely it would be delicious, otherwise why would mother keep it in her baking supplies?
The taste of the spoonful of bitter powder bore no resemblance to the sweet creamy treat I was thinking of and had me spitting in the sink. It was apparent that, although chocolate has been pleasing palates for at least 3,000 years, in its natural form it bears little resemblance to the heavenly indulgence it can become.
When I stepped beneath a cocoa tree in Indonesia, I was struck by two things: first, this wasn’t its natural home. The tree is native to Central and South America but is now grown in equatorial climates around the world. Second, this small tree thrives under the shade and protection of the jungle canopy. Many species crave the spotlight of the sun and are in a perpetual competition for its rays. Cocoa trees never see the spotlight but produce one of the most sought after commodities in the world.
Over 75 percent of the chocolate produced in the world comes from small ecologically sustainable family farms, many under 10 acres. Like with recycling, they prove that the combined small actions of many can make a difference.
It is the transformation from cocoa bean to chocolate that is the real magic, worthy of a Christmas tale. Without considerable refinement, a cocoa bean is just another seed.
The cocoa beans are secreted in football-shaped pods about eight inches long. The 50-60 beans are extremely bitter but are wrapped in a sweet pulp that must be fermented to develop the classic chocolate flavor of the beans.
Once fermentation is complete, the beans are dried and ground and can be made into a drink. This is essentially what Europeans first tasted in the 1500’s. Sugar improved the taste but it wasn’t until 1815 that most of the bitterness was resolved by the addition of alkaline salts. Then the same Dutch chemist found how to remove about half the cocoa butter from the chocolate liquor and improved quality. But it wasn’t until 1847 that Joseph Fry discovered how to make solid chocolate as we know it today.
Even then, chocolate requires refining. Sugar is added and sometimes milk products (milk chocolate) as well. The chocolate is subjected to conching. In this process, the liquid chocolate is crushed by swirling steel balls that smoothes the texture. Finer chocolates are conched for up to a week. Chocolate also must undergo tempering, a very closely controlled melting and hardening procedure needed to achieve the appropriate crystalline structure and avoid a pale surface bloom of oils and sugars.
If chocolate, that most delectable of treats, requires this much refinement to make it fit for our tables, it should be no surprise that humans don’t start out life perfect either. We all need refining and more than a little sugar to make us palatable. As we devour chocolate during the holidays, perhaps it will remind us to be a little more patient and charitable with the chaos that seems to surround the season.
TAX DAY is coming! Here is a chance to do something good with a bit of your tax return and make the day less painful.
Donate part of your tax return to support wildlife in Idaho!
On the second page of the Idaho Individual Tax form 40 you have the opportunity to donate to the “Nongame Wildlife Conservation Fund”.
Check-off this box on your next return or ask your tax preparer to mark the Nongame check-off on your behalf.
If you are not from Idaho, check with your own state wildlife agency about how you can help. Many states have a similar program.
"WOW. What a phenomenal piece you wrote. You are amazing." Jennifer Jackson
That is embarrassing, but actually a fairly typical response to my nature essays. Since The Best of Nature is created from the very best of 16 years of these nature essays published weekly in the Idaho Falls Post Register (online readership 70,000), it is a fine read. It covers a wide variety of topics including humorous glimpses of nature, philosophy, natural history, and conservation. Readers praise the style, breadth of subject matter and my ability to communicate complex and emotional topics in a relaxed and understandable manner.
Everyone can find something to love in this book. From teenagers to octogenarians, from the coffee shop to the school room, these nature essays are widely read and enjoyed.
Some of the essays here are my personal favorites, others seemed to strike a chord with readers. Most have an important message or lesson that will resonate with you. They are written with a goal to simultaneously entertain and educate about the wonderful workings of nature. Some will make you laugh out loud and others will bring a tear to the eye and warm your heart.
"You hit a home run with your article on, Big Questions in Nature. It should be required reading for everyone who has lost touch with nature...great job!" Joe Chapman
"We enjoyed your column, Bloom Where Planted. Some of the best writing yet. The Post Register is fortunate to have your weekly columns." Lou Griffin.
To read more and to order a copy, click here or get the Kindle version
Copies are also available at:
Island Park Builders Supply (upstairs)
Barnes and Noble in Idaho Falls
Harriman State Park, Island Park
Museum of Idaho
Valley Books, Jackson Wyoming
Avocet Corner Bookstore, Bear River National Wildlife Refuge, Brigham City, Utah
Craters of the Moon National Monument Bookstore, Arco, Idaho