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A guide to chocolate – the journey from pod to palate.

By Sara Jayne Stanes, Founder, The Academy of Chocolate

Chocolate is unique. It is the only substance that melts in the mouth at body temperature, gently exploding into a warm, sensual liquid. This singularly hedonistic and deeply satisfying experience has earned chocolate a role in everything from seduction and the demise of slavery to a venerated staple of the herbal pharmacopoeia. Of course, we are talking really serious chocolate here.

What is fine chocolate?

Chocolate is ‘cocoa mass’ or ‘cocoa liquor’ – a combination of the roasted and ground kernel of the ‘cacao’ bean, the principal part of which is cocoa butter (i.e. the fat released when the bean is ground) and sugar. This is then refined and processed. Chocolate may also contain lecithin – a natural emulsifier – as well as flavours like vanilla, and in the case of milk chocolate, milk solids.

Chocolate itself of course doesn’t grow anywhere. It is cocoa, or ‘cacao’, as it should be known, which grows on trees. Its name derives from ‘Theobroma Cacao’ (food for the gods) and is made from the seeds of the rainforest tree grown 20 degrees north and 20 degrees south of the Equator. There are three major varieties: Criollo, Trinitario, and Forastero. These varieties are generally separated into what is known as fine beans (the first two) and bulk beans (normally Forastero). Of these three varieties of cacao, there are over 280 hybrids. Cocoa beans are very susceptible to hybridisation and it is debatable whether there are any true Criollo beans still growing (with the exception of very remote parts of Venezuela’s borders with Colombia and Bolivia).

The history of chocolate

The name ‘chocolate’ most probably comes from the Olmec/Mayan/Aztec hybrid: xoco-atl (whoko-atll) meaning ‘bitter water’ – a fatty, grainy drink made from the crushed roasted and ground cocoa beans, sometimes with the addition of herbs and spices. Sugar (from the Caribbean) was not known in Central and South America until well after the Spanish invasion. When Hernan Cortes and his men invaded Mexico in 1518, they found cocoa was used also as currency. Montezuma was reputed to drink several cups of foaming ‘xoco-atl’ a day before visiting his harem of wives!

While geographical discoveries point to the existence of ‘cacao’ around 6,000 years ago, it was the Olmecs (by Veracruz, Mexico) who were the first recorded people to have found uses for chocolate circa 1500 BC. Remains of cacao have been found in the graves of their priests and are thought to be gifts for the gods on their journey from earth to the afterlife. Cacao was used in ceremonial occasions as offerings to the gods just as communion bread and wine traditionally represent the body and blood of Christ.

The Mayans believed that for the sun to rise every morning, cacao had to be prepared and offered to replace the blood that the sun lost in its overnight fight with the jaguar. In the 9th century, the god of cacao, Queztalcoatl, introduced the cacao seeds to humans and showed them how to use it.

Banished from earth by a party of jealous gods from ‘eden’, he vowed to return to earth disguised as a ‘fair-skinned, bearded man’ to save the people. This gave rise to the legend that Cortes was the resurrected god, Queztalcoatl, and gave him and his Spanish army free passage to capture and colonise Mexico City (then known as Tenochtitlan).

Many other uses for chocolate have been recorded especially for medicinal remedies. Rather than illness being caused by disease, Native Americans viewed health as the state of being in balance with the environment. Losing that balance – perhaps through a ‘perturbed’ diet – could create sickness. Chocolate was viewed as one means for restoring lost balance. As we know now, they were more accurate in their analysis of chocolate than we gave them credit. Among the conditions cured by chocolate were tuberculosis, toothaches, and ulcers. It was also alleged to cure itches, repel tumours, and foster sleep.

By the 1680s, reports emerged that chocolate could restore energy after a day of hard labour, alleviate lung inflammation, and even strengthen the heart. By the 1800s, cocoa was being mixed with ground amber dust to relieve hangovers. Combined with other ingredients, it also became the basis of treatments for syphilis, hemorrhoids, and intestinal parasites.
Chocolate arrived in England around the middle of the 17th century – the same time as coffee and tea. Travellers brought home recipes for the strange drinks, together with tales of their reputed therapeutic prowess. It’s really no wonder that chocolate became such an important part of the apothecary’s medicine chest. It’s also no coincidence that many apothecaries were Quakers, who as part of the Quaker religion, were not permitted to enter certain trades and professions, including the armed forces, and were not allowed to go to university.

At the time of the industrial revolution in the early 19th century, many people across England and elsewhere in Europe moved from areas full of countryside known for their agriculture to towns. At this time, conditions became squalid and people turned to drink for relief. Names like Cadbury, Fry, and Rowntree were all devout Quakers and were familiar with and proficient at using cocoa.
Naturally, with the advent of machinery, they discovered ways of making the fatty grainy drink into something far more palatable. Thus more work for the labourers and an alternative to the demon alcohol. It was this desire for the smooth drink that led to the discovery of chocolate – allegedly by the grandson of the founder, Joseph Fry in c. 1840, as a by-product in the form of a pastille to eat and enjoy.

Qualities and varieties

Cocoa grows on trees some 20 metres high in the wild and 3-8 metres under cultivation in parts of the world close to the Equator (20 degrees north and 20 degrees south). Its indigenous home is Central and South America, with the best beans coming from Venezuela, Grenada, Ecuador, Belize, Colombia, and the Caribbean. The very first cocoa beans were cultivated from Brazilian beans in Portuguese West Africa as late as 1840. Today, the largest producers are the Ivory Coast, Ghana, Indonesia, and Brazil.

The three main varieties of beans are as follows:


‘Native’ or ‘of local origin’, this high-quality, aromatic chocolate, which is substantially lacking in bitterness, is grown in Central America and a few regions of Asia. It is likely originally from Mexico, but now represents less than 5% of the world’s production. Criollo is rarely used alone due to its scarcity and expense. It is finicky to grow and doesn’t adapt well to different climates.


‘Foreigner’ or ‘stranger’, this is ordinary, everyday cocoa, which originates from the Amazon. Forastero represents 80% of the world’s cocoa and has a slightly bitter flavour. In the context of coffee, it is often referred to as ‘cocoa’s robusta beans.’


Trinitario was developed as a hybrid of Criollo and Forastero in Trinidad as a result of the near-total destruction of the Criollo plantations by a hurricane in 1727. Seeds for new plantings were brought from Venezuela and cross-fertilised, with the final result encompassing characteristics of both varieties. Trinitario represents about 10-15% of the world’s total cocoa beans. Its blends are fine and rich in fats and it makes great chocolate.

From this small parentage, there are thousands of hybrids, all affected by different soil and climates. This makes the identification of cocoa a complex process.

The flavours of the beans are affected by the location, climate and soil in which they are grown. It is important to remember that like fine wines, the vintages vary from year to year – sometimes subtly, and sometimes dramatically.

The journey from pod to palate

Cocoa trees produce thousands of tiny, delicate flowers that develop into pods. Resembling rugby balls, pods grow directly from the lower branches and the trunk. They contain between 25-40 seeds, roughly the size of olives, which are formed like a giant corn on the cob. The pods weigh between 200-800g and ripen after 5-6 months.

The taste of the juice and the freshly-picked beans is similar to tropical fruits such as sweet milky lychees, pineapple, and melon. After a few hours, they become very bitter and almost inedible. One tree produces only enough beans for 1kg chocolate per year.

In the next stage of the process, pods are harvested and cut open with a machete. Fresh beans are then scooped out and laid on the ground, or put in special boxes to ferment for between 5-9 days, depending on the variety. It’s the fermentation process that develops the full flavour profile. After that, seeds (or beans) are laid out on the ground to dry in the sun for several days. They are evenly and regularly raked over before being shipped and transported to the factory.

The chocolate-making process

1) To make the majority of commercial chocolate, ‘anonymous’ beans from different countries are blended. The exception is for origin or single bean chocolate varieties (although these high-quality products represent a tiny percentage of the chocolate produced).

2) The next stage of the process is cleaning, which removes foreign bodies like unwanted twigs and stone.

3) Roasting time and temperature are also important to the end product. The higher the temperature, the more bitter the chocolate and the more need for sugar generally. The best chocolate is made from beans roasted at a lower temperature for a longer time, thus creating a richer flavour. In the case of the latter, less sugar is generally needed.

4) Kibbling/shelling/winnowing separates the nib from the shell.

5) Grinding of the cocoa nib then produces cocoa mass (or liquor). An average cocoa bean contains 55% cocoa butter.

6) Now the mass (liquor) takes one of two journeys. It’s either used to make chocolate, or it is pressed to make cocoa cake or cocoa butter.

For chocolate:

The ground cocoa mass is mixed with sugar and kneaded into a ‘dough’. The dough is then refined through five revolving steel rollers which reduces all the solid particles to 20 microns (less for top-quality chocolate). The ‘mixture’ that comes off at the top of the fifth roller is in powder or flake form which is barely perceptible to the touch.

‘Conching’ is essential at this stage for smoothness. The process uses paddles that resemble shells or ‘conches’ (the origin of its name) to thoroughly mix and refine the chocolate mixture to perfection. Depending on the producer’s recipe, more cocoa butter can be added at this stage. Generally, the longer the ‘conch,’ the better, but not so long ago, it was a sign of good chocolate when it was conched for four or five days. Today’s technology has changed that to 8 or 10 hours. The conching time should be long enough to drive off the unwanted volatile odours and bitterness, but not too long to damage some of the more complex chocolate flavours.

Liquid chocolate is then loaded onto thermostatically-controlled tankers for national and international distribution, or chocolate is tempered to ensure proper crystallisation of cocoa butter and its homogenous dispersal throughout the chocolate. Chocolate is then moulded into the familiar blocks or pistoles (chips) that we buy.

For cocoa cake or cocoa butter:

The second route for the liquor is ‘pressing’ in which immense hydraulic pressure is exerted to produce cocoa cake and cocoa butter. Cocoa cake is crushed into a fine powder, before being alkalised (also known as ‘Dutching’ after Van Houten, who invented it at the beginning of the 19th century). Alkalisation mellows the flavour, makes it more digestible because it becomes soluble, and, importantly, darkens the colour. The process was ‘invented’ based on the customs of the Aztec medicine men who used to add wood ashes from the fire to chocolate to make it more palatable.

Cocoa butter is deodorised and refined for use in white chocolate and also added to some dark chocolate.

So is chocolate good for us?

People should certainly not feel guilty about eating it. Below are just some of the ways in which the consumption of chocolate can benefit health.

Blood pressure

Chemicals called flavanols, present in cocoa drinks, and to a lesser extent, in chocolate, can boost the production of nitric oxide which is crucial to the regulation of blood pressure. Research by Harvard Medical School has shown that the benefits can be as great as those of aspirin.

Deep vein thrombosis

The chances of developing this condition can also be offset by the flavanols, according to research at the University of California Davis. A 50g bar of chocolate contains the same concentration of chemicals as two glasses of red wine, four-and-a-half cups of tea, six apples, or seven onions.

Heart disease

Flavanols are also known to improve the cardiovascular system and are said to help prevent coronary heart disease.

Scientists at the University of California have also detected that many of chocolate’s naturally occurring chemical compounds, such as opiates, are also found in cannabis. Opiates and cannabinoids trigger different receptors in the brain, which is “therapeutically interesting.”
In the meantime, individuals wishing to self-medicate with non-prescription-strength chocolate should reach for cocoa or dark chocolate, which can contain 2-3 times more of these compounds per ounce than milk chocolate. The chocolate you find in industrial newsagents is also much less compound-rich, while containing far more sugar.

Tasting: the senses

The cocoa bean naturally contains over 400 distinct aromas – at least twice as much as any other gems of nature. The rose has only 14, and the gastronome’s staple, the onion, only half a dozen.

The taste of chocolate is equally complex as a result of the presence of over 300 different chemical compounds, including theobromine and methyl-xanthine – two mildly addictive caffeine-like substances – and phenylethylamine, a stimulant similar to the body’s own dopamine and adrenaline. Phenylethylamine strikes the brains’ mood centres and induces the emotion of falling in love, a matter of only partly understood brain chemistry. Then there is the actual physical pleasure of feeling the chocolate melt in the mouth, a perculiarly seductive sensation.

Many of these chemical compounds are identical or similar to those found in fruits, vegetables, spices, herbs, and other substances. That’s why we chocolate enthusiasts compare the aromas of
different chocolates to those in toasted bread, grass, wood (bark), leather, melon, mango, citrus, cherry, red berry, plum, raisin, honey, peach, vanilla, butterscotch, herbs, and wine, to name but a few. We’re not being fanciful; there’s a chemical correlation underlying the comparison, and this fact explains the rich metaphorical language used to describe a chocolate’s sensory characteristics.

We all taste things differently according to our mood, our own individual physiological make-up, and the time of day, which is why ‘discovering’ chocolate is so much fun and tells us not only about the chocolate but also about ourselves!
And who said chocolate was junk food?

About Sara Jayne Stanes

Sara Jayne Stanes is the founder of The Academy of Chocolate and CEO of the Royal Academy of Culinary Arts, a food writer, author of award-winning book, ‘Chocolate – the Definitive Guide’, and a Chocolate ‘Evangelist’.

Sara was awarded an OBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours in June of 2007, was made an Honorary Freeman of the Worshipful Company of Cooks in 2006, and was awarded the Special Award in the 2011 Catey Awards. She was also awarded an Honorary Doctorate by the University of West London where she is also a Visiting Professor.

The Royal Academy is Culinary Arts is Britain’s leading association of head chefs, pastry chefs and restaurant managers whose principal aims include raising the standards of food, cooking, and service through education and training, and providing career opportunities for young people. The Academy runs awards schemes, specialised apprenticeships, and ‘Chefs Adopt a School’ (of which Sara is a Trustee). As well as being the Academy’s charity, it is a schools project that teaches children about food in a holistic sense, where it comes from, and the importance of cookery through ‘discovering tastes’ sessions. The RACA supports the Gold Service Scholarship (of which Sara is also a Trustee) started in 2012 to reward talented young professionals in hotel and restaurant food service.

As a food writer and chocolate truffle maker, Sara’s love affair with fine chocolate stretches over 20 years. She evangelises about it whenever she can and to whoever will listen! She is passionate about the provenance of ingredients, origins, varieties, breeds, organics, and, above all else, chocolate. She has written ‘Chocolate – The Definitive Guide’, which contains a foreword by Michel Roux OBE. It is the story of 3,500 years of cocoa to chocolate from pod to palate, covering its history, geography, social, and religious applications, nutritional values, tastings, wines pairings, ‘do’s and don’ts, and recipes. ‘Chocolate’ won the Guild of Food Writers Jeremy Round Award in 2000. Sara regularly broadcasts and writes about chocolate, as well as giving lectures, seminars, and tastings.

Sara campaigns to encourage people to ‘look beyond the label’ of their chocolate confectionery. Currently, like much of agriculture across the world, cacao farmers are paid a pittance (average $1.4 per kilo). Between $4-6 would ensure that they maintain a decent standard of living, and would ensure that they would get healthcare and a proper education for their children. Subsequently, she and a group of fellow chocolate lovers started an Academy of Chocolate in 2005. It aims to promote the story of chocolate and ensure that everyone knows the difference between ‘real’ chocolate and chocolate-flavoured confectionery. It is a long journey from pod to palate!

Sara lives in Clapham, London with her chocolate-loving, wine merchant husband, Richard, and their Battersea dog Montezuma.