Sponsored in part by the Mars Corporation, the weekend show-cased their "American Heritage Chocolate" in addition to cultural presentations and performances. I attended a lecture entitled: Cacao History and Science, in which Mars plant science researcher Howard Shapiro discussed the history, culture, and genetic aspects of chocolate.
A quick debrief on cacao - this tree native to the Americas is found at latitudes between 18 degrees north and south of the equator. The center of origin for cacao is in Ecuador, however somehow seedlings were transported up to the Olmec region of Mexico where the tree was first domesticated. For most of this ancient history, really up until modern times, the drink produced from cacao beans was restricted to important political and religious figures. The Maya used beans as currency; legends and holidays centred around the crop; it even has a long tradition of medicinal use.
But today we consume chocolate by the barload - yes, of this I too am guilty. Did you ever stop to think, though, that one cacao tree may yield 50 pods per year ... enough to produce just four dark chocolate bars (let's say 3.5 oz apiece). I think I will avoid admitting how many cacao trees I go through in a year, then. The process, too, consists of many steps - fermenting, drying, roasting, and grinding the beans - even prior to it resembling chocolate as we know it.
Believe me; I have no desire to give up my chocolate fixes any time soon. That said, I think we all need to give our chocolate a thought as we consume it - as with any of our food. Savour the flavors, appreciate the origin and process, and support companies trying to promote social and environmental sustainability. Cocoa production is still at the small-holder farmer level; it continues to be part of agroforestry systems; and there is great potential for breeding in increased yields and building rural livelihoods on a global market.
So, what did I do with all this information? I chewed it over, went home, and made the Spunky Coconut's chocolate lava cakes. I may have substituted a few ingredients, such as tapioca for arrowroot, turbinado sugar for the coconut sugar, and cocoa for some of the melted chocolate. My version also had a hint of kahlua and molasses, which adds a nice depth of flavor. Let's all give a little of love and appreciation to that aphrodisiac/dessert/medicine/tropical fruit that makes Valentine's Day.