“Beautiful as usual,” I greeted her with a hug. “Are you ready for our tour?”
“I’m always ready for chocolate.” She closed her eyes and inhaled the scent of warm chocolate emanating from the factory.
“I know. If I worked here I would be as big as a house.”
We entered the gift shop and gazed longingly at the bars of premium chocolate, cans of cocoa, packages of nibs and other confections.
“This was such a great idea,” Michele said, quickly adding, “I hope there will be a tasting.”
The guide called our group together. She explained that brick is a good insulator and helps keep the inside temperature cool, which is ideal for making chocolate. She led us around the building to a small room with chairs. On the front wall hung a large map of the world showing the regions where cacao is grown. The guide provided a brief history of the company, emphasizing the difference between mass produced chocolate and fine chocolate made by skilled chocolatiers who carefully select quality beans and, using only the highest grade ingredients, take the chocolate through a carefully controlled process that results in a product with a richer, more nuanced taste.
Other than in the case of milk chocolate, premium chocolate has no dairy products. The only ingredients are the cacao beans; sugar, in varying amounts that determine if the chocolate is semi-sweet or bittersweet; some cocoa butter, which is the fat that has been extracted from the beans during processing and is added back in for smoothness; a small amount of soy lecithin as an emulsifier (you can’t use too much cocoa butter as an emulsifier or it will dilute the flavor); and vanilla beans. That’s all.
Cacao beans are technically seeds. They grow inside a large, grooved fruit called a cacao pod, surrounded by a slightly sweet, white pulp. Neither cacao, which is a seed, nor coffee, which is a berry, is actually a “bean” in the strict sense, meaning a legume, but the term “bean” seems to be the preferred way to refer to cacao seeds. The homely, spindly cacao tree grows in humid, tropical climates. The pods sprout from the trunk and lower branches like awkward appendages. To tame the bitterness, cacao is subjected to a process that starts with fermenting the seeds with the white fruit pulp. Once fermentation is complete, the seeds are dried, then roasted. This process was developed by the Maya, at least as far back as 2,600 years ago, and it is from the Maya that we get the word cacao. The Maya brewed the seeds into a hot, frothy and bitter liquid that was spiced with ingredients such as chiles, vanilla, achiote and sapote. Typically it was not sweet, although honey is known to have been one of the ingredients occasionally added.
I whispered to Michele, “The Temple of the Great Jaguar — one of the pyramids in the Mayan city of Tikal that I visited a few years ago — was constructed around 700 A.D. by the a powerful king named Ah Cacao. His name roughly translates as Mr. Chocolate.”
“Then I wouldn’t have minded being Mrs. Chocolate.”
Cacao spread to other Central American cultures, including the Aztec. One theory for the origin of the word chocolate is that it derives from the word xocoatl, which means “bitter water” in the Nahuatl language spoken by the Aztec. Although Cortez knew about cacao from his conquest of the Aztecs, there is no historical evidence that he is the one responsible for introducing it to Europe. It was not until the end of the sixteenth century that cacao began to be officially exported to Spain, where the beverage’s bitterness was tempered with sugar, and the new drink, sometimes mixed with vanilla, allspice, nutmeg or cinnamon, became the coveted refreshment of European nobility. Chocolate was ingested primarily as a beverage until the nineteenth century, when a technique was perfected for making solid chocolate by extracting cocoa butter from the beans. The first chocolate bar is credited to Joseph Fry’s & Sons in 1847.
The delicately nuanced cacao seeds cultivated by the Maya and other indigenous people of the Americas were given the name criollo by the Spanish, which means “native.” During the colonization of South America, the Spanish discovered another strain of cacao in the Amazon Basin that was hardier but less flavorful than criollo, and called it forastero, meaning “foreign.” Through cross-pollenization over the centuries, a third strain developed which was called trinitario, after the Caribbean island Trinidad where the first hybrid was documented. The vast majority of the world’s beans are forastero, but chocolatiers use the more expensive beans to create refined blends.
The guide passed around a basket of roasted cacao seeds, brittle and starting to shed their skins, which released a subtle aroma of chocolate. In another basket were the unsweetened nibs for us to taste, the small fragments of roasted bean that result from winnowing. The nibs have a dry bitterness that takes some getting used to, accustomed as we are to the presence of sugar. A vanilla bean, so deeply brown it bordered on a rich black, was also passed around; Michele had to pry the aromatic pod out of my fingers.
“And now what you’ve all been waiting for: the chocolate.” The guide passed around trays of dark chocolate. I let one of the pieces melt slowly in my mouth, savoring its complex combination of flavors. “You don’t want to keep chocolate more than about sixteen months,” she cautioned, “or it begins to lose its flavor. But who would be able to make it last more than sixteen months anyway?”
“More like sixteen minutes,” Michele said.
We entered the factory and proceeded into a separate room where the winnowing machine was trembling with a furious racket as it separated the hulls from the roasted beans. Out of one side, nibs shook down a chute into a large white container; from the other side, the papery hulls were being vacuumed up into another container to be discarded or sold as chicken feed.
Back on the factory’s main floor, the guide pointed out the milling machine with its granite wheels, where the nibs are ground into a heavy mixture and the solids and cocoa butter are separated. A coiled orange tube fed from the mill into the conche, which was slowly and deliberately stirring a batch of liquid chocolate. “This is where the fat content is adjusted by adding back in some of the cacao butter and an emulsifier,” the guide explained.
We passed by the tempering machine, where the temperature was carefully being raised and lowered so the cacao butter crystals could realign and bind with the chocolate. The finished chocolate was then piped into molds on a conveyer belt, which passed through a cooling machine. Chocolate rectangles were dumped out of the molds onto another conveyer belt at the other end, ready to be packaged.
Our tour concluded, and Michele and I decided to have lunch in the factory’s cafe.
“Such a homely tree, yet it produces something so exquisite,” Michele marveled. “Wasn’t there a study showing that people who eat chocolate tend to live three years longer than people who don’t?”
“I saw that, too. But you know, a lot of chocolate is so processed with extra ingredients that it counteracts any of the health benefits. We’d be better off if we consumed it like the Maya.”
Our talk shifted to other matters. Michele told me about obtaining her real estate license and her plans with her husband Greg to buy property, remodel and sell it.
“You know, Michele, I really admire your ability to succeed at whatever you put your mind to.”
“That’s the way I’ve always been. I don’t think about failing. I just think about what needs to be done and do it.” She took a bite of her salad. “It’s funny, though; when Greg and I were designing and building our house, I would describe something I wanted to have built, and sometimes he would tell me it couldn’t be done. But I never accepted that answer. It was always like, why not? If we do this, then this, then this, it should work. And it always did. It might not be the traditional way to do something, or it might never have been done before, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be done.”
I laughed. “That sounds so familiar. Andre and I play those same roles. When we were working on the art for his CDs, he would describe the look he wanted for a particular image. He would say, take this photo of a car, erase the wheels, put lights on the side, and turn it into a spaceship. I would argue with him, saying it wouldn’t work, it was too hard, it was beyond my abilities. He would get so angry with me, accusing me of putting up barriers. But it was just that I didn’t like being pushed to the limits of my abilities, being challenged to go outside of my comfort zone. I was afraid of failing.”
“Perhaps for Andre and me, there isn’t a comfort zone. Or maybe, paradoxically, where we are most comfortable is outside of our comfort zone.”
“I feel like I’ve lived my entire life in fear of something: afraid of the dark, afraid of disease, afraid of rejection, afraid that my true nature would be found out.”
“Well, it’s the human condition. We all live with fear, the only difference being what it is we’re afraid of. Some of us fear growing old, or fear abandonment, being ridiculed, being ignored.” She took a sip of water. “In the end, your body does betray you as it slowly wears out. But it’s not altogether a bad thing. I mean, if you think human beings are difficult now, can you imagine how intolerable we’d be if we were never humbled by our bodies?” We laughed together. “The important thing is that, hopefully, being aware of the limits of our mortality encourages us to focus on what’s truly important: our relationships with others. How we treat one another. Expressing care.”
I told Michele how Andre devised what he called Seven Days of Love to celebrate our first Valentine’s Day. Each day leading up to Valentine’s Day brought a new surprise: flowers one day, then a chocolate cake, a home-made CD of love songs, dinner for two. The most delectable surprise, though, was a pan of brownies he made from scratch, moist and dense with chocolate.
Michele smoothed the napkin on her lap. “There you go. What more can you ask for: love and chocolate.”
In the dark hours before dawn, the Opossum God burrows into the earth and travels the sacred road. He sings his song, helping to guide the sun to emerge from its passage through the underworld. The Opossum God is the bringer of light, the one who brought fire from the heavens, or perhaps from the underworld, one can’t be sure which. In the Mayan New Year rite, he carries on his back the rain god, nourisher of the maize, and carries also the dark cacao seeds as his food during the long winter journey, just before the arrival of spring. Cacao is to be the offering. “I will bring you life,” says the Opossum God, sprinkling the cacao seeds into the earth. Out of the earth, resurrected from the underworld, will come maize, to nourish the people. His task completed, the Opossum God scurries away as the sky lightens and the sun rises above the earth.
Song of Fire ebook with 12 free downloadable songs is available from: