Monday, October 31, 2011

Harvest Ingredient 29: Chocolate (Cocao)

Like Maize (corn) this is such a big subject and requires a great deal "botany talk" to tackle that I thought I would introduce this strange plant with pictures of growth, harvesting, processing and the like.  The botany (which is the most extensive of any of the plants I tried to tackle here this month) can wait for another time.  I will mention that the word "Cocoa" originally derives from the Mayan Kakaw which was corrupted by Nahua speakers into cacaua, and further corrupted by the Spanish to the present day Cocoa.  The word refers to the tree and the product of their seeds that is processed to make chocolate.  The word "chocolate" derives from the Nahuatl xocolatl (pronounced Show-cah-lat(l))--spelled in the modern Nahua speaking language(s) as Chocolatl and pronounced with a soft "Cho" at the start of the word.

Above are cocoa fruits in various stages of ripeness.  As the fruits grow larger, they change color from Maroon to a deep pumpkin orange--at that stage they are ready for harvesting.  At this point they fall from the tree.  Notice that the fruits are actually growing out of the trunk of the tree!

This is one of the fruits cut in half to reveal the seeds covered in white fleshy pulp.  The pulp is edible.

Seeds with flesh still covering them removed for fruit pod.  

Freshly shelled seeds AKA beans, undried and unfermented.  The seeds themselves are edible and nutritious.

One process dry ferments the seeds in pods--this is done in some parts of Africa.

Dried cocoa beans.  Ready for traditional fermentation.  Even in very old times, huge vats of beans were fermented in a process that typically took a year, turning several times--the process transforms the beans from a somewhat bitter and tasteless seed into a flavor filled "nut" ready for grinding.

The traditional way to grind chocolate is on the volcanic grinders that are mostly known as "metates."  Above a Maya woman grinds chocolate on a metate.

These are what modern processed Mexican chocolate tablets look like.  Most of them are gournd with raw brown sugar and almonds, both of which were Old World imports; most, but not all, also contain canela, which is true cinnamon from southeast Asia.  They are becoming easier and easier to find in ordinary supermarkets.  Lesser known Mexican chocolate tablets with native ingredients like vanilla are harder to find, but any Mexican or Latin market should carry them.  These are kind of melt in milk and drink affairs; they are also good grated into coffee grounds before they are brewed.

A modern cup of native Mexican chocolate prepared with milk.  The original chocolate drinks had water as a base.  The use of masa in some preparations, provided a kind of vegetable "corn milk."  Depending on where the drink was being prepared and by one ethnic group a number of other things were added, including vanilla, ground pumpkin seeds, honey, fruit and juices, ground annatto seeds which are called achiote, fragrant herbs and flowers like Yerba Buena, Hoja Santa, etc.  Aztecs were extremely fond of adding dried, ground chiles as well.  In some places, like Veracruz that are highly tropical in climate and where abundance of tropical fruit were grown, actual fruit juices were used as a base, instead plain water.

A modern native Mexican chocolate kit.

Aztec chocolate traders.

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