Published on October 18th, 2012 | by Charu Suri8
A Delicious Obsession: Lessons from a Chocolate Historian
Who doesn’t love chocolate, in all its variations? We catch up with Mark J. Sciscenti, BA, Chocolate Historian, Artisan Chocolatier, Chef Instructor & Pastry Chef of World Tree Chocolates to give you a snapshot on chocolate trends, origins and everything you wanted to know but were afraid to ask.
Butterflydiary: How long has chocolate been consumed?
Mark Sciscenti: Chocolate has been consumer over 4000 years, from about 2000 BCE to now. It was initially consumed as a bittersweet spicy drink. The first chocolate bar was invented in England by Joseph Fry in 1847 and consisted of cocoa powder, cocoa butter and sugar. It was not like the chocolate bars we are familiar with today, which is made up of ground cocoa beans, cocoa butter and sugar.
What exactly is a Chocolate Historian?
A chocolate historian is a professional culinary historian who researches the history of chocolate. I am one among many chocolate historians around the world – I believe that there are 6 of us here in the US. However, many culinary historians are knowledgeable on a wide range of history and food-ways which include some or a lot of chocolate history. My focus is pretty specific with chocolate although this does include culinary history around the world.
I am passionate on the history of chocolate for one obvious reason – I love chocolate! I’ve been drinking chocolate (hot/cold chocolate) for most of my life and preferred it only lightly sweetened. I have been a pastry baker and chef for over 20 years. I also grew up in an archaeological family here in the Southwest and have history in my blood. In addition, I am intrigued by the complexity of many flavors – the form of chocolate consumed throughout its history was as a bittersweet, complex and spicy drink.
When I was given an anthropological book on the history of chocolate over 12 years ago I pretty much devoured the book and fell in love with the idea of this pre-Columbian and historic chocolate. As a chef and pastry chef I set out to make these chocolate drinks, which I’ve been making since. I’ve been lecturing on the history of chocolate for over 10 years around the country at prestigious museums, anthropological and medical conferences, living history museums, businesses, schools and at private events. I always sample some of these historic drinking chocolates at these events. At this point, I make over 28 different kinds of historic drinking chocolates which span the Mesoamerican and pre-Columbian time periods, the historic European and Colonial American and Mexican time periods.
Why do people love chocolate?
There are many reasons. The one obvious one is that chocolate has a luxurious taste and mouth feel. Another reason is that many complex bio-chemical reactions happen in the brain that induces euphoria.
How has the use and value of chocolate changed over the years?
Oh, there have been lots of value changes. Originally during Mesoamerican times, the cacao beans were not only made into a chocolate drink, but the beans were used as value units for trade – barter/money. From some of the historic documents we know that food or services were bought using cacao beans – an avocado or tamale was worth 1 cacao bean, portage could be had for 100 cacao beans, and the services of women could be bought with 10 cacao beans (an indication of how women were valued).
Drinking chocolate was pretty much the exclusive right of the rulers and kings, medicine people or shamans, warriors and wealthy traders, and it was drunk in ceremonial fashion. Commoners were allowed to have chocolate during important dates, festivals and weddings.
Those who were growing cacao in the lowland tropics also drank chocolate but only for the same reasons. During the historic European period the drinking of chocolate was consumed only by the aristocracy and wealthy merchants. It was only in the mid to late 1800′s that the consumption of drinking chocolate was available to anyone due to manufacturing processes that made it inexpensive. Then of course, in the late 1800′s and early 1900′s you get all the candy made from chocolate. This happened because plantations of cacao were being grown all over the tropics – more production and better machinery.
I believe that the chocolate museum in Belgium has some literature that says chocolate prevents acne, is an aphrodisiac and isn’t proven to cause weight gain. Is this true?
Let’s take these one at a time: chocolate does not necessarily prevent acne, nor does it cause acne. An aphrodisiac? Well, that is a stretch and a theory that is over 400 years old. No. There are a lot of compounds in chocolate that can make humans feel good which can lead to sex – but in and of itself, no, it is not an aphrodisiac. Weight gain from eating “junk” chocolate or candy is a proven fact. Too much sugar and bad fats added to chocolate causes this. Dark chocolate, when consumed in small quantities (about an ounce) will not cause weight gain. In fact, the drinking of about 3 oz of dark chocolate – 70% or higher (not just cocoa powder) 20 minutes before a meal will reduce the amount of food a person eats. That could help someone lose weight.
What are the current chocolate trends you’re seeing?
A lot of attention to the so-called “fair-trade” and organic issues, which are valid as there is a lot of inequity around the world in cacao plantations; attention to origins and types of cacao beans; the production of fine-flavor chocolate and smaller chocolate makers (here I mean bean-to-bar chocolate makers, not candy or confection makers); interesting flavors being added to chocolate confections; the so-called “raw” chocolate movement (a bunch of misinformation and hype, to put it bluntly).
Regarding consumption: who’s producing a lot, and eating a lot?
The Swiss are the world’s largest consumers of chocolate, with the rest of the Western EU countries behind them. Then England, then the U.S.
What beans of cacao do you personally love?
Criollo and Trinitario, the fine-flavored cacao beans. The Criollo only produces around 1%-5% of the world’s crop – really rare! Trinitario produces around 15%-20%, also rare. And both are expensive. But, they have the most variety and range of flavors.
What are the impact of “Fair Trade” prices on the quality and cost of chocolate since those from whom Cocoa and many other products were from the longest time being practically “taken” have begun to stand up against the injustice?
This one is complicated.
“Fair-Trade” prices have only made a small impact upon the cost of chocolate – not enough produced at the moment. As to the quality – Quality has never been of importance to “fair-trade” chocolate makers. The bulk of the cacao going into the production of “fair-trade” is of the Forastero cacao beans – which make up 80%-90% of the world’s crop. While Forastero has the deep chocolate flavor it has the least fine-flavor notes. It can also be quite acidic and astringent. Forastero cacao requires more fermenting and careful drying and roasting to bring up any of the flavors. All too often, these steps are ignored.
There is a concerted movement by a lot of companies to address the inequity issues surrounding cacao. However, sad to say most of the larger companies will not address these issues. There are a few larger companies like Mars, but not many.
Most of the movement is from smaller bean-to-bar chocolate makers and other companies. These companies may, or may not be involved in the “fair-trade” movement, however they are working towards the same goal of empowering the cacao growers. Unfortunately, and I say the following with trepidation, most of the money from the “fair-trade” organizations do not reach the cacao growers. There are quite a few issues with the internal bureaucracy of these organizations that contribute to this.
There are quite a lot bean-to-bar chocolate makers around the world who do a better job of working with the growers and pay rates way above the “fair-trade” rates (which by the way, is tied to the worlds commodities markets rates). However, they are not certified (the certification process is quite expensive which the growers are responsible for in the long run and the money goes into questionable places).
The greatest increase in the cost of chocolate is coming from the loss of crops due to the high disease rate. This is raising the prices of the bulk commodity cacao which goes into candy – so the price of candy is going up. So what? I don’t eat candy!
Will you pay more for chocolate made from “fair-trade” cacao?
I already pay prices that are at a premium and are quite a bit higher than the “fair-trade” chocolate as I buy from the ethical small bean-to-bar chocolate makers. Most people who buy candy are used to paying around $1.50 per item; most chocolate bars run in the $2.50-$3.50 range and up to $5, including “fair-trade” bars. I pay $7-$16 per bar, and these bars run from 1oz to 3oz.
To reach Mark Sciscenti or to book him for an event, reach out to him at firstname.lastname@example.org. All photos property of Matthew Minucci, Butterflydiary.com. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.