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Chocolate Comes from Slime

Alas, it's early March and hot chocolate season is nearly over. While I'm very much looking forward to warm weather, there are many cold weather comforts I'll miss. With the house shut up against the cold, the wonderful aromas of my wife Suzie's cooking hang about a little longer. And who doesn't enjoy the temptation of a tall mug of hot chocolate jammed with marshmallows.

Suzie and I recently watched an excellent four-part documentary on food and cooking named, appropriately, Cooked, produced by the writer of the book by the same name, Michael Pollan. It's available on Netflix. Pollan has written several books and produced or participated in various documentaries regarding food production, cooking, and eating.

The titles of the four parts of Cooked are the same as the traditional basic elements. Fire is about cooking, especially methods used in a wide selection of cultures to cook meat. Water focuses on pot cooking a complete meal in a single vessel. Air tells the story baking bread, recounting thousands of years of history of techniques and recipes.

Most fascinating to me was Earth, which focused on fermentation. Now when we use that word I believe most people's minds go immediately to wine-making, but the same term and process applies to many other food-preparation techniques used for many millennia. It's simple really: just let the food rot. Animals do this when they bury a fresh kill, returning later when the rotting process has made the meat more palatable. Cheese making is a process of controlled fermentation that has been raised to an art from. Earth features an interesting section on a nun / microbiologist who has studied cheese-making first hand at her abbey. She studies her cheese with electron microscopes as it ferments. What fun, watching mold grow on your cheese. Perhaps abbey life was too boring.

While some of the fermentation methods used to produce the food we eat were familiar, one in particular was a surprise. Chocolate, wonderful, creamy chocolate, begins its existence as a mass of orange-colored cocoa beans, wrapped in a gelatinous mass of white slime which is removed from the husk of the fruit by hand and then dumped in a cubic-yard sized tub, slime and all. There it’s covered with canvas and allowed to ferment for several days, during which a lot of heat is generated and the slime decomposes. Yeah, it rots. At the end of this carefully monitored process, when the temperature in the middle of the tub is just right, the beans are dumped out and sun-dried, at which point they’ve gained their characteristic milk chocolate color and are ready for further processing into Snickers bars.

I hope by telling you the truth behind your food I haven’t ruined your appetite for that next candy bar, bowl of pudding, or good ole hot chocolate. If I did, fear not. I will do my part to make sure none of that slimy chocolate is wasted.