by Faye Zhang
The heft of the chocolate rests in my hand like a well worn stone or dark brick. It’s slightly chilled and sweats tiny beads of moisture in the center of my palm. Its weight is comforting. A bite into its dusty exterior releases a burst of grainy flavor which has been compared to aged wine and earth. This is theobroma, food of the gods.
It’s a chill September afternoon, and I’ve passed a junkyard and the number 69 bus stop to arrive at the Taza Chocolate Factory . The fetid air of the factory, smelling of sour-burnt cacao beans, is a warm respite from the gloomy weather outside.
The tour guide, a cheerful Harvard grad employed by the company, leads my group through the factory (obstinately cheerful itself, festooned with paper cutouts and painted sunrise colors). As we pass the belching, steaming roasting machine, the crackling packaging machine, the maze of overhead copper pipes bearing sweet streams of melted chocolate, and the flocks of hair-netted employees flitting from work table to table, I wonder what the Aztecs would think of all this.
Chocolate bears an ancient history, dating back to 1900 BC or older. It’s not meant to be sweet; that was the Europeans’ doing. It was originally served like wine, as a fermented, bitter beverage. And like wine, cacao beans bear history in their very essence, inseparable from their origins, for cacao beans take on the flavors of their environment (beans grown near banana trees taste like bananas). And since old cacao shells are milled into the earth to fertilize future generations of trees, chocolate is layered flavor on flavor, history on history. The blander the ground, the blander the chocolate. Would chocolate grown in burnt earth taste of fire?
Chocolate is not meant to look pretty; that was also the Europeans’ doing, when they began forcing chocolate into artificial molds of tinfoil hearts and Easter bunnies. Cacao pods grow on the tree in motley formation, jutting out of branches and splitting straight off the trunk. Far from brown, the beans are autumn colored, like rusty leaves. A twist of the hand or a strike of the machete plucks the pod, another strike splits open the husk. Inside is baba, which means drool, a white mucus which embraces the beans. Baba is slimy but lemony and edible, full of those vitamins and minerals mothers like to force upon their children.
Again like wine, chocolate must be fermented to deserve the name. Without proper fermentation, chocolate will not develop nuanced flavors. Seven days is the norm: seven days the beans spend quietly maturing in dark burlap sacks. On the seventh or eighth day, this idyllic peace is interrupted as the beans are pounded and their outer shells winnowed away. Released into the wind, the fine shell dust tints the air with a scent of brownies.
The beans, now naked and shriveled, are again packed into burlap bags labelled with the names of various companies and distributors across the globe, to be ground, tempered, melted, sugared, and fattened into gleaming bars or milky dust. Some of the bags end up at Taza: some in this very room where the cheerful tour guide has led us, where they rest heavily in a corner of the factory floor.
Taza uses granite molinos, round grinders, to mill its cacao beans. The tour guide passes one around: a thick stone wheel with a hole in the center. It’s deceptively heavy. Carved with spiral patterns, it looks more like a marine shell fossil than an artisan’s tool. This particular grinding stone is newly carved, but the technology is ancient. Or so I think.
With a smile, the tour guide tells us that, in these molinos, an Archimedean screw is set within the center hole, so beans can pass smoothly from grinding stone to mechanized grinding stone. The Archimedean screw, a device meant for transferring water, was invented in Greece in 300 BC—more than 1700 years after the birth of chocolate. I wonder what the Aztecs would think of that.