Thursday, June 26, 2008

The Chocolate Exhibition at Henry Ford

This installment of ZMO Journal
comes courtesy of our first guest writer,
Tim Miller. Take it away, Tim.

Annette and I visited Chocolate: The Exhibition at The Henry Ford the Saturday before last. It was fascinating, and we'll probably return again before it finishes it's run on September 7th. I strongly recommend it to anyone who has an interest in chocolate. Here are some of the highlights and things I learned.

As you enter the exhibit, there is a life-sized photo of an old-fashioned chocolate shop to set the mood. As you stroll further into the exhibit, you learn about the life cycle of cacao trees and their fruit. (You may notice that each display contains both English and Spanish versions of the text--very appropriate considering the origins of cacao.) There are several stations that allow a closer look at the cacao fruit along with associated trivia. In the center of this area stands a life-sized (though sadly artificial) cacao tree. It's interesting to see the flowers attached to the trunk of the tree rather than nestled among the leaves like most flowering trees we are familiar with. The flowers are pollinated by small flies or midges. When the fruit (or pod) ripens, it looks a lot like a large (think football-sized) papaya, which can get up to a foot long. Each pod contains about 20 to 40 seeds or beans, surrounded by a white pulp. (We sold a preserve made with this pulp, until we discovered how quickly it ferments!)

Further on is a series of displays that document the history of cacao and its use by Mesoamerican cultures. The Mayan civilization was among the first to use cacao. The Mayans believed that cacao was given to humans by their gods after humans were created from maize. The Mayans eventually traded cacao with the Aztecs. Cacao was very valuable to the Aztecs since the trees were difficult to grow in their environment. The cacao beans became so valuable that they were used as currency among the Aztecs and other Mesoamerican cultures. (In some areas, cacao beans were still used as currency up to the 1840s.) The displays include art of the Mayans and Aztecs, pottery and other interesting artifacts.

In 1519 the Spanish Conquistadors arrived in Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital, where they observed Montezuma consuming cacao in the form of a beverage. The Spanish returned to Europe with cacao beans and the knowledge of how to create this elixir. Cacao was a well kept secret in Spain for years, but eventually the secret was revealed and cacao spread throughout Europe quickly. In Europe the drink came to be called chocolate, a Western pronunciation of the word xocolatl (Aztec for "bitter water"). Both the Aztecs and the Europeans believed that chocolate was an aphrodisiac and drank copious amounts. Europeans added sugar to the chocolate drink, making it even more popular. To keep up with the demand, Mesoamerican peoples were enslaved. Eventually the more reputable chocolate companies refused to deal with the slavers. A reproduction of a letter written by John Cadbury denouncing the slave trade is included among the displays of delicate chocolate cups and pitchers.

In the 1870s, the process of solidifying milk chocolate using condensed milk was invented. Chocolate manufacturers were very interested in milk chocolate since it was more affordable than other forms of chocolate. In the late 1890s, Milton Hershey invented a process to mass produce milk chocolate bars. The bars were successful and the Hershey Company grew accordingly. The displays include vintage advertisements and recipe books from Hershey's, Cadbury, and other popular chocolate makers. There are also some vintage chocolate molds on display.

Included among the displays is a description of the chocolate making process, from bean to bar. When the pods from the cacao tree are fully ripe they are harvested, the beans are removed and fermented for about a week and dried to prevent molding. The fermented beans are then roasted at high temperatures. The beans are hulled, the nib (the inner part of the bean) is extracted, milled, and a liquid called chocolate liquor is produced. (Despite it's name, this liquor sadly contains no alcohol.) The liquor is blended with varying amounts of cocoa butter, sugar and possibly milk, vanilla, nuts and other flavorings, then conched for up to 78 hours. The conche is an agitator that evenly distributes the cocoa butter and polishes the cacao particles producing a much smoother and more flavorful chocolate. The conching process was invented by Rodolphe Lindt in 1879. Prior to conching, solid chocolate was gritty (similar to the Bonajuto and Oaxacan chocolates we sell today at Zingerman's).

The largest cacao producer today is the Ivory Coast. The third largest cacao producer, Brazil, is the only country that consumes most of the chocolate they produce. (Brazilian cacao exports have suffered due to the effects of mixed weather patterns and infection by the witches-broom fungus since 1989.)

As you approach the end of the exhibition, there is a wall that looks like a giant box of chocolates standing on it's side. The wall contains a few monitors that feature interviews with various chocolate lovers waxing philosophical on their favorite treat. There are even seats that look like chocolate truffles sitting in their wrappers. Beyond the wall is a chocolate shop that has chocolate scent piped in and products ranging from chocolate candles and bubble bath to all kinds of chocolate bars including Mo's Bacon Bar! Outside the exhibit is a chocolate cafe featuring different kinds of brownies, and other delectable treats. Rumor has it that on certain weekends, their are free tastings from their sponsors in the lobby near the Imax Theatre. For more information, visit the website for Chocolate: The Exhibition .

Be sure to visit this exhibit before it disappears like all great chocolate does!

Tim Miller

Friday, June 6, 2008