Photography by Aaron Pedersen/3Ten
The cacao beans behind chocolate have been cultivated since around 500 A.D. Along with potatoes and corn, chocolate is a pre-European-contact Meso-American food item that’s now enjoyed everywhere. Cacao is often mistaken for cocoa, which is actually the by-product of the bean – when the bean is processed and made into butter or powder. The Olmecs and Aztecs used cacao mainly in a drink that, without sugar or cream, bore little resemblance to today’s hot chocolate, according to Rachel Pereira, assistant retail manager at Kerstin’s Chocolates.*
“The drink was made with corn meal and spices, and the Aztecs used it in religious ceremonies,” Pereira says. The beverage later became widespread and Spanish accounts from the 1500s report that people in South America used cacao seeds as currency.
Marianne Stover, who is co-managing the downtown store with Pereira while owner Kerstin Roos travels the world’s chocolate hotspots, adds that the Aztec ruler, Montezuma, was said to have drank cacao for his virility, one example of chocolate’s renown as an aphrodisiac. “And chocolate contains theobromines,” Stover says. “They act on the central nervous system to speed up the heart.”
In Europe, it was mostly only the aristocracy who enjoyed chocolate until the 1800s, when industrial processing brought down the price and put chocolate within reach of more people. And, that processing hasn’t changed much to this day.
At Sweet Lollapalooza, passersby can watch owner and chocolatier Brett Roy.
First, the seeds are pulled from pulp inside lumpy, nearly football-sized cacao pods. Then they’re fermented and dried for shipping and processing elsewhere. Stover says that 95 per cent of the world’s chocolate comes from
high-yield forastero crops. At Kerstin’s, most of the chocolate is made from lower-yield criollo beans. She says that criollo is a more complex flavour to forastero’s single note.(The third category of cacao is trinitario.) Kerstin’s chocolatier, Rebecca Grant, tempers the imported chocolate to perfect the consistency and sheen, and makes the Kerstin’sline of bars and bonbons.
Kerstin’s also stocks a variety of high-end chocolate, sourcing it carefully. In the mid-1980s, chocolatiers in Tain-l’hermitage, a wine district near Lyon, France, started making bars from single-origin beans, in much the same way wine makers use grapes from one vineyard, savouring the differences regionality brings, rather than aiming for conformity in taste. A step further, bean-to-bar local processing is becoming popular among aficionados.
“All five senses are involved,” Stover says. Well-tempered chocolate has a satisfying snap, indicating a harmony of fat (cocoa butter) and cocoa mass. The look depends on the cocoa content and the tempering – typically, you look for smooth and glossy chocolate. The smell and taste of chocolate can reflect characteristics of crops grown near it. A Colombian dark chocolate, for example, might have a strong taste, big on the nose. One from Madagascar might have more citrus notes. In mass-produced chocolates, the scent or taste of too much added sugar or vanilla is pretty much the chocolate version of lipstick on a pig.
One of the first gourmet chocolate shops to gain popularity in Alberta was started by fourth-generation Belgian chocolatier Bernard Callebaut, in Calgary. He did a lot to educate our palates. In Edmonton, Kerstin Roos has grasped the chocolate torch, and other boutique chocolate shops have popped up, proving there’s still room in the sweet-tooth market.
If you find yourself downtown close to Valentine’s (or any) Day, duck into Chocolate Exquisite on 104th Avenue or Sweet Lollapalooza in Commerce Place. “I try not to add too many extra flavours,” says Sweet Lollapalooza owner and chocolatier Brett Roy. “For example, if I’m making something with raspberry, I’ll look for chocolate with a similar taste profile.”
Try Roy’s passion paradou, and follow with the raspberry noir. The first brings the surprise of a tart finish, the second matches the sweet-sour raspberry with a silky dark chocolate. (A box of four to six bonbons costs $8 to $12.) Finish with what Roy describes as the oldest and rarest chocolate in the world: Pure Nacional, a variety of cacao rediscovered in 2007 in the remote Maran Canyon of Peru. It’s from the last stand of pure Nacional cacao in the world, which were thought to be wiped out by disease in the early 20th century. Roy is thrilled to work with the rare chocolate, known for a long mellow finish, devoid of bitterness.
Top: Chocolate covered cacao pods at Kerstin’s Chocolates. Bottom: Jacek Chocolate Couture’s new collection was inspired by antique china.
Jaqueline Jacek, owner of Jacek Chocolate Couture, says fashion and chocolate are her passions. She produces a new line of half a dozen or so beautiful boutique chocolates seasonally, and was recently selected as one of the top 10 chocolatiers in North America by Dessert Professional trade magazine. Gift-wise, the spring collection would please anyone on Valentine’s Day – the chocolates practically glow. And they taste as good as they look.
Favourites from past lines have included raspberry ruby, a caramelized white chocolate topped with raspberry ganache and sesame brittle – toasted seeds in a dark chocolate. Echoing a popular trend, Jacek also makes a chocolate topped with crunchy sea salt. Six pieces start at $13 to $15, available at jacekchocolate.com, Cafe Haven, Credo Coffee or Everything Cheese.
A bit of chocolate is the perfect end to a Valentine’s dinner. Pick up Kerstin’s Dark & Milk Chocolate Lovers Box ($49.95 for 1,000 grams of mixed chocolate bars from around the world) and run your own chocolate tasting at home. Start with milk chocolates and move to darker chocolates with increased cocoa content. (In-studio tastings are currently offered and chocolate-making classes at Kerstin’s will resume once Kerstin herself returns this spring.)
Sweet Lollapalooza’s Brett Roy advises you to serve groupings of chocolates – first, the fruity ones, followed by nut-based ones, then finish with dark chocolates. Serve chocolate at room temperature with red wine, coffee or tea. And always mark nut-based sweets, and prepare and serve them separately, for guests with allergies. Whatever you do, slow down and appreciate the experience.
*Editor’s note: Kerstin’s Chocolates is now closed until further notice.