Many years ago I lived with a few friends in a caravan park just outside Stellenbosch. The prefab house was dilapidated but cheap. The view of the mountains was extraordinary and there was a strawberry farm right next door.
My neighbor from across the corridor had flaming red hair, which off course made her nearly invisible when she crawled on all fours through a field filled with strawberries.
With her natural strawberry-camouflage she was the only one who could execute daytime raids on the fields with their precious harvest. The rest of us had to wait for the cover of night, by which time the owners had let the dogs out making our task so much more difficult.
But our red-haired friend had another characteristic that made her stand out from the rest of our commune dwellers. One for which she became legendary well beyond the borders of our caravan park.
Her love of chocolate.
Yes, she could eat chocolate in volumes and ways that I have never come across before or since. By the bag full, varieties I never knew existed.
One evening I found her sitting cross-legged on her bed surrounded by chocolate. As I noted the mountain of wrappers on the floor I asked: “Jis, what’s up?”. She looked up at me and with a mouth full of chocolate truffle and said: “Tonight I am going to consummate chocolate”.
Now, I never found out whether our friend’s intent simply revealed her deep rural Afrikaans background and hence, limited command of the English language, or whether she wanted to take her love of chocolate to a whole new level. Let’s just say, every time I open a bar of chocolate, I am plagued by rather unsavoury images of a red-haired woman sitting on a bed surrounded by a mountain of chocolate.
In its raw form chocolate is not sweet, far from it. It is astringent, bitter and somewhat bland. Its full, complex flavours are released through fermentation and roasting.
A product of the New World, it was Columbus after his fourth journey (1502) who brought the cocao bean to Spain. The Dutch were the first to make cocoa powder (1828) by first removing most of the fat (cocoa butter) from the bean, and then using the defatted powder for hot chocolate.
The English firm, Fry and Sons, was the first to develop the first solid eating chocolate in 1847.
But it was the Swiss who laid the foundations for chocolate as we consume it today. In 1876 Daniel Peter added dry milk powder developed by Henri Nestlé to make the first solid milk chocolate and two years later Rudolphe Lindt developed the conche, a machine that grinds the cocoa beans, sugar and milk powder over a long period of time to obtain a very fine consistency that was not possible before.
There are at least six types of chocolate: the mass produced, inexpensive chocolate that contains the very minimum cocoa solids and cocoa butter but maximum sugar and milk solids; “fine” chocolate that are made from special selected beans and processed in small batches with more than the minimum cocoa solids and cocao butter; dark chocolate that contains cocoa solids, cocoa butter, and sometimes sugar, but no milk solids; milk chocolate contains more mild solids and sugar than cocoa solids and cocoa butter; couverture chocolate which is formulated to flow easily when melted, contains more cocoa butter than usual and is mainly used to make chocolate coatings; and “white chocolate” which contains no cocoa particles and has thus no chocolate flavour. Technically, this is not chocolate and is made from deodorised cocoa butter, milk solids and sugar.
Although we mainly consume chocolate as a confectionary, it can also be used as a flavour additive or savoury ingredient.
Over the Christmas season I started reading Niki Segnit’s “The Flavor Thesaurus” which describes flavour components and food parings. Based on shared flavour components (earthy, mustardy, marine, brine and salt, meaty, floral fruity etc.) she pares ingredients that we sometimes regard as odd, strange or simply ridiculous. But be brave and try some, you might be pleasantly surprised. Here are some unusual ones that you might not have come across and her suggestions on how to combine them:
- Chocolate and bacon: try a maple-flavoured cupcake with a slightly salted chocolate ganache and finely chopped beacon topping.
- Chocolate and cardamom: a chocolate tart made of seeds of ten cardamom pods finely ground, 1 ¼ cups of cream, 200 grams dark chocolate and 2 tablespoons unsalted butter. The mixture is heated, poured into a sweet pastry shell and put in the fridge for a few hours to set.
- Chocolate and chilli: try making a classic Mexican “red” or “black” mole (sauce) with turkey or chicken.
- Chocolate and cauliflower: complicated to make but see if you can find the recipe for Heston Blumenthal’s cauliflower risotto with carpaccio of cauliflower and chocolate jelly.
On the combination of chocolate and strawberries Niki Segnit asked: “Aren’t they the sort of thing corporate raiders feed to call girls in cream-coloured hotel rooms?” Well, and with that the image of my red-haired friend just popped up again. Vivid as ever.