Years ago, my husband brought me samples of chocolates whenever he returned home from work abroad in France and Switzerland. He is the reason I became too spoiled to ever go back to Hershey chocolate again. The creamy texture, the delicate flavors, the “mouth feel” and the happy feelings these special treats provided could never be matched by anything available in this domestic mass market.
Fast forward to last summer: when visiting my aunt in France, she brought us to her favorite chocolate cafe along a cobblestone walk in Bayonne. It boasted a cozy, comfortable place to sit and relax while tantalizing confections were calling, calling out from the shelves. The owner could be seen carefully wrapping a recent batch of creations in golden foil. The main reason we came was for the chocolat mousseux. This is a heavenly rich, creamy hot chocolate drink prepared with a frothy dome over the top, served in fine bone china along with a side bowl of Chantilly crème. So we sat, sipped and savored, enjoyed our company, and life was very good!
For chocoholics like me, savoring a good piece of chocolate is an instant vacation. The rich cocoa color, the smooth feel, the creamy texture, the aroma, the balance of flavors, the sweetness that cranks out those “feel good” neurotransmitters within one’s brain; chocolate is truly a joy for all the senses. For this reason, chocolate was a natural subject for beginning my writing series. Each month, I will be exploring a local NH product or experience that not only boasts impressive health benefits, but also an enjoyable experience: a little slice of “joie de vivre” or “joy of life.”
Whenever we can direct all of our senses to wrap around an object, a feeling, or an experience- this brings a delicious awareness to life known as “Zen.” The whole point of Zen practice is to become fully aware, here and now. The point is to come home to the present moment, which is truly where we all live- not in the past, and not in pondering the list of things we have to get done for tomorrow. And… yes! The cocoa in chocolate is also chock full of antioxidants and flavonoids that can nourish the blood vessels, reduce blood pressure, reduce inflammation, and a whole laundry list of other possible health benefits.
- According to a study conducted at Cornell University, the concentration of antioxidants in hot cocoa is almost twice as strong as red wine. It’s concentration is 2-3 times stronger than that of green tea and 4-5 times stronger than that of black tea.
- The flavonoids present in chocolate help your body promote the actions of nitric oxide. This is how chocolate can improve blood flow, help lower your blood pressure and improve general heart health.
- The flavonoids in chocolate help prevent platelets in your blood from sticking together and forming clots, and therefore may be protective from stroke.
- According to this recent systematic scientific review, chocolate improves mood, and likely improves cognition or the ability to think clearly and process thoughts.
I recently had the pleasure of meeting with Richard Tango-Lowy, owner and master chocolatier of Dancing Lion Chocolates in Manchester. Richard was originally a physicist years ago, but he decided to follow his passion by going abroad to study and earn his Master Chocolatier status from renowned institutions in France, Italy, and in North America before opening his shop.
While sampling some decadent chocolates, and over a couple of steaming bowls of divine drinking chocolate (mine had two different hot peppers diffused in it for a pop of flavor and a nice, warming sensation that lasted long after the last sip was finished), Richard discussed some interesting points with me about the history of chocolate, and about chocolate production.
First, there’s chocolate, made from cacao beans. They are grown from trees, harvested and fermented, ground up and often mixed with other ingredients such as milk, sugar and other ingredients to add flavor and texture to make the wonderful stuff we all know and love. Then, there is cocoa powder- this is made from ground cocoa beans in a process and the cocoa butter has been removed.
Beverages made from cacao beans are evidenced by artifacts dating from 1900 B.C. in areas that we now know as Mexico and South America. The Mayans and Aztecs used cocoa beverages for medicine, for sacred ceremonies, and as an elixir to help give their soldiers energy and fortitude in battle.
The addition of sugar and milk can be traced to later European history, when chocolate was made as more of a treat, though it was still largely ingested as drinking chocolate. Cocoa beans arrived on scene in some parts of Europe even before coffee, and chocolate houses where people could gather and imbibe this lusty drink became popular establishments- and places for general bad behavior. Here is an interesting article about the history of the raucous chocolate houses in London:
Unfortunately, modern mass manufacturers of chocolate who supply the U.S. do a couple of undesirable things to chocolate. First, they add lots of sugar. After all, we are Americans and we like things sweet! Second, they routinely remove the natural cocoa butter from the bean because it fetches more money sold as an additive for cosmetics. They then replace it with cheaper and less healthy fillers. Third, in the U.S., anything that has at least 15% chocolate in it, can be called chocolate. So, a “chocolate” bar off the shelf can be constructed of mostly flavorings, sugars, unhealthy oils, and artificial ingredients.
I was interested to learn from Richard that “milk chocolate” does not necessarily have more sugar than dark. In fact, the dark often includes more sugar to balance the more bitter and astringent flavors of the cocoa. So, even if you are not usually a milk chocolate fan, I recommend trying a selection when tasting- you might be surprised!
A detail that I appreciated about my meeting with Richard is that he has a knowledgeable handle of the complete supply chain of his chocolate. He has personally visited each of his small supplier cacao family farms in places such as Guatemala, Ecuador, and Vietnam. He knows the name of the people who grow, pick and ferment the beans that he uses in each of his confections and their pictures adorn the walls in cafe. He knows that more first aid kits are currently needed in the fields, and that their children can use more supplies for school, and so he is working to organize efforts to raise awareness and money to better support them.
He explained that people enjoy coming to his cafe because of the variety of chocolates, and for the fact that nothing ever stays the same. Chocolate flavors vary greatly by region, by how the beans are fermented, and by the soil, weather and growing conditions of that year. In this way, it is similar to ever-changing vintages of wine. He even pays attention to what he pairs with the chocolate; one example is the blood orange ingedient in the smaller bon bon in the picture. Last year’s blood oranges were not flavorful, but this year’s were a good complement. And they are delicious!
Richard senses that many of his customers have some guilty pleasure when enjoying his chocolates. I wondered why this has to be, because it can be a healthy treat in moderation. But he insists that he wouldn’t ever want to take this away from anyone- that the guilt actually adds to the pleasure. Funny enough, on my way into the café, I bumped into acquaintances of mine who were celebrating a successful presentation at work. They guiltily admitted they had been there longer than they meant to be. And they were smiling, and clearly enjoying every moment. And now I know they work nearby, and now I have a standing invite to call them the next time I am in Manchester during work hours. We’ll meet soon for chocolate, and, no one else has to know about it. J
Would you like a guilt-free recipe for a simple drinking chocolate that will help you feel like a Mayan warrior for your workout, nourish your heart and mind, that has no added sugar?
Here is a simple recipe shared by Richard that you can make at home:
Bring water to boil. While this is happening- warm up a cup of milk (or milk substitute if you are intolerant of dairy) over low heat.
Put a teaspoon of cocoa powder* in a mug and add a small amount- about a tablespoonful or so- of boiling water to it. Stir it to create a “slurry”- this helps to dissolve the powder.
Add warm milk, stir and enjoy.
*make sure the cocoa powder you select is 100% cocoa powder, no sugar or fillers.
I like Dancing Lion Chocolate’s Pacari raw cocoa powder- sourced from Ecuador. I have been using it for the past year- it has vibrant, delicious flavor. I add a little honey to mine.
For extra punch, you can add a pinch of cinnamon or cayenne powder to your drink. Enjoy!
Richard also recommends experimenting with cocoa bean nibs for cooking- they can deepen the flavors when sprinkled over roasted vegetable dishes. This past weekend, I tasted it in chili- it provided a deep, smokey background flavor that complemented the beans and spices nicely.
Snow day? If you would like a healthy version of hot chocolate to share with your family as a sweet treat, pass right on by the Swiss Miss. It contains a lot of sugar and artificial ingredients. Instead, here are some much better hot chocolate recipes that you can make at home: