Chocolate Renaissance

The Food staff recommends local and online chocolate retailers for Valentine's Day

Chocolate showpiece incorporating products from local chocolatiers created by Texas Culinary Academy chef instructors Aimee Olson and Earl Vallery, currently on display at TCA.
Chocolate showpiece incorporating products from local chocolatiers created by Texas Culinary Academy chef instructors Aimee Olson and Earl Vallery, currently on display at TCA. (Photo by John Anderson)

Human beings have always recognized chocolate as something extraordinary. In ancient times, the Olmec, Mayan, and Aztec peoples harvested the elliptical pods in the rain forest and revered them as emblems of life and fertility, making a sour, foamy drink for their royalty from the ground beans and using dried beans as a currency to evaluate men's riches. In the 16th century, Spanish conquistadores introduced cacao beans to Europe as one of the exotic foodstuffs of the New World and were the first to add sweeteners to the heady potion made from them. Europeans were so enchanted with chocolate that they developed various techniques for its refinement and preparation, transforming it into myriad delicacies with the addition of cream, sugar, butter, and natural flavorings. For centuries, chocolate remained a luxury enjoyed mainly by the privileged. As worldwide demand grew, cultivation of the coveted crop spread around the equatorial regions of the globe. Industrialization in the late 19th and early 20th centuries put chocolate within reach of the common man and allowed for the mass production of chocolate treats. But mass production, homogenization of flavor, worldwide distribution, and the necessity of extended shelf life led to the addition of fillers, stabilizers, chemicals, preservatives, and artificial flavorings so that, by the second half of the 20th century, many of the products called "chocolate" were but waxy imitations of the original celebrated food of the gods.

Over the last 20 years, however, chocolate has experienced a miraculous and well-deserved renaissance. Scientists verified and announced the many healthy aspects of dark chocolate, extolling its valuable antioxidant properties. Anthropologists, botanists, and environmentalists joined forces with proponents of sustainable agriculture, slow foods, and fair trade to identify and promote the historically distinct varieties of the cacao tree, touting the unique flavors and aromas of single origin, organically grown, and fairly traded chocolates. Fine-quality dark tasting chocolate with percentages of chocolate liquor as high as 65-75% have now become all the rage, and talented chocolatiers in Europe and America are using the best quality chocolate they can acquire as a medium for culinary artistic expression.

In the past three years, the international chocolate renaissance has blossomed in Central Texas. Professional culinary programs train chefs to work with chocolate and actively encourage artistic competition. A local festival celebrating all things chocolate grows bigger every year (p.51), and several retail shops and wholesale producers are offering small batches of elegant, handmade chocolate creations. The Chronicle Food staff – Mick Vann, MM Pack, Wes Marshall, Claudia Alarcón, Barbara Chisholm, Kate Thornberry, and myself – had the enviable task of searching out area chocolate artists and sampling their wares in preparation of this story, and then MM Pack styled the bounty of chocolate treats for staff photographer John Anderson. Whether your chocolate obsession is for the essential bean with minimal processing and few adornments, voluptuous truffles flavored with luxurious liqueurs, or delightful candies made with quality ingredients, there is a chocolate artisan in Austin with just the object you crave.

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