Cocoa beans in the age of technology

Thousands of years after it was first produced, chocolate is as popular as ever, and technological advances mean chocolatiers are putting a 21st-century spin on the ‘food of the gods’.

At the rate of a million per day, 350 million bars of Dairy Milk chocolate disappear off the shelves every year. Chances are, at least a few of those have ended up in your desk drawer for that Tuesday post-lunch slump. But this wasn’t always the case. There was a time in Europe, during the conquest of Mexico in the 16th century to be exact, when only the most well-connected Spanish nobility could afford cocoa, an expensive import. Interestingly, it had nothing to do with a bar being organic, hand-wrapped or of single origin, so let’s backtrack.

Having initially arrived in Europe from Aztec and Mayan lands, the humble cacao bean carries with it quite a history. According to anthropologists, its earliest documented use was possibly as early as 1500 BCE by the Olmec in Mexico. Evidence in the form of residue in vessels uncovered from this ancient civilisation suggests that the white pulp around the cocoa beans was likely used as a source of fermentable sugars for an alcoholic drink. The Olmec then passed on their knowledge to the Maya civilisation, which covered several Central American territories during the Classic Period of 250 to 900 CE and is widely credited as the first to appreciate the value of cocoa. It was highly revered in the spiritual and cultural life of the Maya: they depicted cocoa on artwork, gifted it to the deities, consumed it during marriage celebrations, used it for medicinal purposes and presented it at royal burials to warrant comfort in the afterlife.

The Maya grew cocoa trees in their backyards and prepared cocoa paste by fermenting the seeds found inside cocoa pods, drying them, roasting them, removing the shells from the beans to get the nibs and finally using a ‘mano’ (a cylindrical stone) to grind the nibs against a ‘metate’ (a large rectangular stone mortar). This was made into a frothy, bitter drink, complete with water, finely ground corn and chilli peppers. And while the colourfully wrapped impulse purchase at the supermarket checkout can’t exactly be described as identical to this concoction, it turns out that modern-day chocolatiers haven’t strayed too far from this five-step process.

“The traditional methods of chocolate-making have stood the test of time, and we still rely heavily on them because it’s a natural product,” says Philippe Marand, General Manager, Middle East, of the Barry Callebaut Group, the world’s leading B2B supplier of high-quality chocolate and cocoa products. 

The French chef also happens to be the Head of the recently-opened Chocolate Academy in Dubai – a first of its kind in the region – that offers a wide range of demonstrations and workshops to culinary professionals and chocolate enthusiasts seeking to learn through hands-on training.

Elaborating on the production process, Marand says: “Yes, we now grind thinner, and maybe a little bit faster, but not much has changed over time. After you scoop the cocoa beans out of the cocoa pods, you have to cover them with banana leaves and allow them to ferment for two to three days to develop their taste. After the beans have been dried, we receive them in our factories, select the best ones to work with and continue the process that has essentially remained the same: we roast the beans, remove the shell, grind them into a paste known as cocoa mass and add sugar and other ingredients to make chocolate. It’s been done this way for roughly 180 to 200 years.”

Timewise, the chef’s estimates are pretty close to accurate. Chocolate remained largely a handmade, aristocratic nectar up until the invention of the cocoa press in 1828 by Dutch chemist Coenraad Johannes Van Houten. His product squeezed the cocoa butter from roasted cocoa beans, leaving behind a dry cake that could be pulverised into a fine powder we now call cocoa. The innovation enabled it to be used as a confectionery ingredient, ushering in the modern era of chocolate and causing a drop in production costs, thereby making it affordable to the masses for the first time.

Collectively, we can all be grateful to the bigger, bolder machinery that has resulted in confectioners producing more rapidly and in larger quantities, turning chocolate into an indulgence we now take for granted. Cocoa farming, in contrast, remains basically unaltered. Farmers are still the ones to harvest, ferment, dry and pack the beans into sacks by hand. In fact, because the fermentation stage is the first in developing the chocolate’s flavour, farmers can have a direct impact on the quality of the finished product. Yet many have never even tasted it; a video of a cocoa farmer from the Ivory Coast trying chocolate for the first time went viral recently. “To be honest I do not know what they make from my beans,” N’Da Alphonse said before the taste test. “I’ve heard they’re used as flavouring in cooking, but I’ve never seen it.”

It is crucial for chocolatiers to offer direct help and support to bridge this gap between farmer and factory, says Marand. 

“Our R&D team deeply studies the role that nature plays, and how we can better optimise the end results in a more sustainable way,” explains Marand. “Communicating our knowledge on natural fermentation to farmers guarantees them higher-quality output and more stable revenues, especially as there is big competition from rubber trees that sometimes bring them more money than cocoa trees.”

Today, chocolate factories are akin to science labs: full of secret recipes and special blends, precision instruments tracking temperatures and moisture levels. Marand is of the opinion that technology has had the biggest impact in the realm of quality control. “We’re more capable of selecting the best beans, measuring the chocolate’s fluidity, and controlling the traces of humidity that remain,” he says. “It tastes better now because we understand the product on a deeper level – how the fineness and flavour development of the cocoa’s mass resulting from the grinding and conching stages affects its appeal.”

It is arguable that, as in any other area of our lives, the leaps in technology haven’t come without a price. American confectioner The Hershey Company, one of the world’s biggest manufacturers of chocolate, recently made headlines for using its futuristic CocoJet printer to 3D print uniquely designed chocolate, including intricately laced patterns and complicated hexagons. Yet, some deem this technology gimmicky, preferring to use quality ingredients and traditional processes. Martin van Almsick is General Manager for a manufacturer of camel milk chocolates, Al Nassma. “Theobroma cacao – which literally means ‘food of the gods’ – is the botanical name of the cocoa tree,” he says. “The challenge is to live up to this term. If technological developments are funded entirely by a food industry trying to simplify processes and replace core ingredients to save time and money, I can see few positive aspects in this. It’s time to rediscover the virtues of indispensable quality ingredients, whatever the costs.”

Commenting on the increasing competition within the chocolate industry to produce the fastest and cheapest product, van Almsick says: “As a result of this ‘race’, pure but expensive cocoa butter has been replaced by cheap vegetable fats and soy lecithin so it is mass-production-compatible. Artificial flavours and stabilisers ensure a long shelf life and low production costs, resulting in high quantity and low price over quality. Even though our products all share the same wonderful name – chocolate – they are worlds apart.”

Under van Almsick’s direction, Al Nassma has enjoyed tremendous success in only seven years. The artisan chocolatier – and the world’s only producer of camel milk chocolate – is stocked at upscale locations such as the Emirates Palace in Abu Dhabi, Julius Meinl am Graben in Vienna, and now Harrods in London. So what exactly qualifies its delicacies as gourmet, besides the fact that camel milk in itself is a natural – and very unique – raw material?

“We’ve completely omitted all cost-saving substitutes used by many chocolate producers, such as artificial vanillin and soy lecithin, so the full aromas of original Madagascar vanilla, natural honey and the slightly mineral touch of camel milk can develop. Secondly, we are a bean-to-bar producer. We make our own chocolate from scratch, which is becoming rare nowadays because so much chocolate is mass-produced,” he replies.

The Dubai-based chocolatier continues to place a 21st-century spin on the traditional Bedouin dietary staple of camel milk through flavourings such as dates and pistachio marzipan. “With our camel milk chocolates, we are capturing the flavours of the Arabian Peninsula and conveying the region’s heritage to the world. Besides the fact that camel milk is regarded as a mystical elixir of life in the Gulf, it has recently been rediscovered as a superior alternative to cow’s milk.” 

Similarly, Marand and his team at the Chocolate Academy pair premium Barry Callebaut raw materials – think single-origin chocolate from Java, Cameroon and Tanzania – with cardamom and rose; ingredients more oriented to Arab palates. 

The future is looking sweet for chocoholics in the UAE thanks to a combination of budding home-grown talent, ever-churning creativity, experimental new pairings, and some of the finest raw materials around. Our cocoa cravings may have evolved from the spicy brew of a bygone era, but many around the world are still working hard to harvest, roast and grind cocoa beans to create something we’ll forever wax lyrical about – just like the Maya before us.