The cacao tree is native to the Amazon region and had a special significance in Aztec mythology. The term "chocolate" comes from the Aztec word tchocolatl. It is formed by the word choco, which means "noise", and atl, meaning "water".

Tchocolatl was a mixture of water and toasted and finely ground cacao beans stirred vigorously in large bowls (hence the "noise"). In order to tone down its bitterness, pepper, honey, musk, ginger, and cinnamon were added to it. This was the Aztecs' favorite drink, one that was offered to their gods and which gave them strength for anything, including their sexual performance. Their chief Montezuma, who welcomed Columbus when he landed in Mexico in 1492, always drank it before honoring one of his many wives. He offered it to him, according to tradition, and you can imagine how the seafarer and his companions were impressed by the strength of that beverage! 

The first cargo of cacao beans reached Spain later, in 1524, sent by Cortès.

Chocolate was long a rare and exotic drink reserved for the Spanish nobility, then the French and European upper classes. It was only under Louis XIV, nearly a century later, that it was made into pastilles.

Liquid or solid, chocolate became the object of passions and subsequent economic strategies. It was seen as a panacea, even an antidote against poison. 

In order to respond to the growing demand, cacao trees were introduced by the conquering powers of the day (Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, and French) to their colonies where the climate was conducive to their growth: Latin America, Caribbean, Indonesia, West Africa.

The first French chocolate factory was founded in Bayonne in 1776.

Industrial chocolate production came into being in the 19th century: Meunier at Noisiel, Poulain at Blois, Peter and Nestlé in Switzerland. Peter was the inventor of the milk chocolate bar. Nestlé thought up a way of filling those bars.  

During the Second World War, chocolate was a part of the American GI survival kit. It is still an essential companion at all parties.

Cocoa tree varieties

Forastero: 89–90% of world production. Native to the Amazon, it is grown in French West Africa, Brazil, Central America, Ecuador, and in the west of Africa.

Criollo: 1–5% of world production. A variety from Venezuela, it is grown in Latin America, the West Indies, Cameroon, and Ecuador.

Trinitario: 10–20% of world production. This is cross between Forastero and Criollo, developed in the 18th century in Trinidad, hence the name. It grows in the same countries where the Criollo variety is found, and in Sri Lanka and Indonesia.

Nacional: this is a variety of Forastero that has been grown in Ecuador since the 19th century.

Each variety produces beans with different aromatic qualities, which also depend on the country and the plantation.

Qualities

These are determined by European regulations:

Single-origin chocolate: product made from cocoa sourced from a single country.

Cru chocolate: sourced from a specific geographic region and even from a single plantation.

Grand cru chocolate: the cocoa used has a special, uniquely identifiable character.

Outstanding among the grands crus are Chuao, the most intense; Puerto Caballo, which is almost as intense; followed by Trinidad, Ecuador, Sri Lanka, Madagascar, and Ivory Coast. 

In many countries, including those in Europe, use of vegetable fat is authorized as a substitute for cocoa butter.

Chocolate not identified as "pure cocoa butter" should be ruthlessly discarded. Only products with cocoa butter are entitled to the name "chocolate" in North America.

Chocolate is sold as cocoa powder, pure cocoa mass, cocoa nibs, blocks (couverture) in different weights and crus (depending on suppliers), and in pistoles (disks). Cocoa butter is also found in pistoles.

Depending on the manufacturer, there are also preparations for chocolate mousses and sauces, chocolate with crispy textures, fondant, chocolate in small sticks for pain au chocolat, etc.

Chocolate is fragile; it becomes soft with heat, brittle and stained white by cold, which makes its fat rise to the surface and crystallize its sugar; and light causes it to oxidize. Chocolate should be stored away from a light source in a dry place at a temperature of 15–18ºC and in its packaging for up to 12 months after its production date.

Chocolate is high in calories, mainly because of its significant fat and sugar content. As such, it is a source of energy.

It is also high in vitamins and minerals, and also in stimulants (caffeine and others), and protective antioxidants of all kinds. So, after having long been considered bad for the health, reputed to cause indigestion and acne, among others, it has almost been raised to the status of health food. A growing number of scientific studies show that regular chocolate intake (even in relatively large amounts) is a protective factor against cardiovascular diseases.

Likewise, chocolate has anti-stress properties, given that the sugar it contains and the pleasure its consumption produces triggers the secretion of endorphins – calming and invigorating molecules – in the brain.

It also has an age-old reputation as an aphrodisiac that has never been scientifically proven.

White chocolate is not really chocolate, since it only contains cocoa butter, milk, and sugar. It is much fattier than dark or milk chocolate.

Cocoa mass and cocoa butter

Cacao pods, the fruit of the cacao tree that resemble footballs, are harvested. They are split and anywhere between 25 and 75 beans are extracted.

They are sorted, cleaned, roasted, cooled, crushed, de-germed, and ground. The resulting cocoa mass contains approximately 50% fat.

Cocoa mass is either kept as it is or heated to liquefy it and thus produce cocoa butter (subsequently filtered and cooled), and a meal that is crushed and reduced to a fine powder: cocoa.

Dark chocolate

The cocoa mass, mixed with sugar, is ground then conched, i.e., stirred and kneaded while warm in large tanks.

Conching lasts from 24–72 hours, and its duration determines the quality of the chocolate.

Cocoa butter is added to varying degrees, or, unfortunately, vegetable fat, and sometimes emulsifiers.

It is then tempered at 28–31ºC so that the cocoa butter can crystallize and add its shiny color to the chocolate. It is then molded, cooled, and turned out as blocks.

Milk chocolate

The cocoa mass is mixed with sugar and milk. The following production stages are the same.

White chocolate

This is a mixture of cocoa butter, sugar, and milk. There is no cocoa mass used. 

The proportion of cocoa mass differs depending on the manufacturers. There is a regulatory minimum imposed for each category of chocolate:

Couverture chocolate: 48% minimum

Unsweetened chocolate, bitter, superior, black: 43% minimum

Chocolate with almonds: 43% minimum

Dark chocolate: 35% minimum

Chocolate with puffed rice: 35% minimum

Chocolate with hazelnuts: 32% minimum

Milk chocolate, superior or extra fine: 30% minimum

Plain or cooking chocolate: 30% minimum

Milk chocolate: 25% minimum

"Solid chocolate" or "cocoa" products: 35% minimum

"Powdered chocolate" or "cocoa" products: 32% minimum

Chocolate-coated products: 20–35% minimum

Liquid chocolate or "cocoa" products: 6% minimum

White chocolate: minimum 20% cocoa butter

Diet or low calorie chocolate: lower sugar content.

Recipes