The longest love affair of my life has been with chocolate. Other loves have come and gone, but chocolate, proving he’s never jealous of the attentions I have given to others, has swooped in to comfort me during times of heartache.
While visiting Cusco, Peru, my daughter, Anevay, asked to do one thing: take a chocolate-making class at the Choco Museum. She didn’t have to ask me twice!
Located just a couple of blocks from the Plaza de Armas, the museum greeted Anevay and I with the tantalizing aromas of chocolate and spices. We were handed small, steaming cups of Mate de Cocoa, a delicious, subtle brew made from cocoa nib shells. While waiting for our class, we wandered the museum and read many of the placards. I learned something that will forever change my world view:
CHOCOLATE DOESN’T CONTAIN CAFFEINE!!
For years, I’ve foregone eating chocolate in the evening, believing the urban legend that it would keep me awake at night. Standing there in the museum, I heard angels singing. The world melted into chocolate. No longer would be romance with Chocolate be a part-time affair! For now until eternity he can accompany me into those long, dark, lonely nights–
“Um, Mom?” Anevay’s voice knocked me from my cloud. “Are you OK?”
The rumor that chocolate contains caffeine is based on a confusion between two similar alkaloids: caffeine and theobromine. While they are both stimulants, theobromine is gentle, and delivers a feeling of well-being to whomever ingests it. This means that when folks who are feeling blue eat chocolate, there’s a valid reason!
We were soon called to our class. While I won’t bore you with all the details, suffice to say there were a few great moments:
- Learning the process of making chocolate, from the collection of the cacao fruit (which needs to be harvested by hand… we later tasted one fresh in the rainforest) to fermentation (to mellow the flavor and make it less bitter), drying in the sun, roasting (we did this by hand the way the ancient Inca people did), the removal of the shells and the crushing of the nibs (the part of the fruit that contains cocoa solids and cocoa butter), and finally, conching, which is the way chocolate-makers mix the crushed nibs over the course of a couple of days to make it creamy.
- Making two kinds of hot chocolate: one, a spicy style in the way of the ancient Inca, with red pepper and no sugar; and the other, with milk and sugar, two goods that came over with the Spanish in the 1500s.
- Taking the chocolate we had processed and pouring it into molds over various treats we had chosen (I was partial to adding coca- not cocaine, folks, but the crushed leaves of the coca plant!- and sea salt, while the kid also added coca and all sorts of little store-bought sweet candies).
- Walking through the streets of Cusco to eat our chocolate.
By 2050, it’s been predicted that many of the areas that grow cacao will have such different climates that the plant will suffer. The area around Iquitos, in Peru, might be one of the last remaining places the plant can be grown, and therefore, that’s where conservation efforts are being focused. The idea of not having chocolate… Shiver!
Learning a bit about how chocolate is made, tasting the fruit in its raw, fresh form, seeing it grow in the wild (which we eventually did in Tambopata, Peru), and finding out that climate change is quickly ruining the habitat for the plant, gave me a new appreciation for this fabulous fruit.
A Note On Free Trade vs. Non-Free Trade Chocolate
While I’ve always had an eye for sustainably grown products, I’ll never, ever be eating a Hershey’s bar (or other corporate-created chocolate) again. While this chocolate mega-company likes to publicize its involvement with helping the San Juan de Cheni community in Junin, Peru, rebuilding the town after it was “destroyed” by guerilla warfare, the darker side to the story is that the company is there ONLY to restore the cocoa-producing capacity (and does nothing to curb the child trafficking and slavery potentially happening in the cocoa fields). Below is a documentary shot in the Ivory Coast (Africa) about the chocolate trade. While clearly not shot in Peru, the issues are the same. Companies like Hershey’s refuse to be Free Trade certified, meaning that workers on cacao farms aren’t paid fairly, children are forced to work, and worse…