Last year I had the great pleasure of meeting Chicago-based chocolatier, Uzma Sharif, and tasting her truly exotic and unique chocolates. She describes herself as “carrying on a tradition that began with her grandfather’s career as a renowned pastry chef in Pakistan. Uzma has handcrafted a distinct collection of ‘East meets West’ chocolates, personally choosing every spice, flower and chocolate used at her shop.”
The following is a guest post by Uzma as she shares her expertise on the origin and history of chocolate, one of the world’s most treasured delights.
Chocolate is one of the most versatile ingredients found on the planet but what do we actually know about its origins?
Chocolate begins with the prized fruit of the cocoa tree (theobrama cacao). The cocoa tree is an evergreen with quite specific growing conditions and there are only few places on earth that meet these conditions. The cocoa belt, as this area is known, lies within 20 degrees to the north and south of the equator. This area of consistently warm temperatures and high humidity provides the cocoa tree with its required temperature range of 64-89 degrees Fahrenheit, a humidity of 80% during the day, and rainfall of 59-79 inches per year.
The cocoa tree grows to about 20-30 feet tall, usually in the semi shade of the taller trees. A cocoa pod is produced when the bisexual flower is pollinated by a small midge. The pod is 6-10 inches long and 3-4 in diameter, and usually contains 20-40 seeds. A tree usually begins producing cocoa pods after three years. Cocoa trees bear fruit, flowers and growing pods at the same time. Therefore harvest can take place all year long but usually occurs from March through May and October through November.
The origins of the sweetest delicacy in the world are rooted in the history of the Olmecs and not in the Aztecs as is commonly believed. The Olmecs occupied a tropical area on the Gulf of Mexico where conditions were ideal for the Cacao tree and therefore the earliest known cocoa plantations were cultivated.
Today, it is cultivated around the equator, and can be found in the Caribbean, Africa, South-East Asia, South and Central America. There are three main varieties of cacao trees. The most common is Forastero, which accounts for nearly 90% of the world’s production of cacao beans. Rarest and most prized are the beans of the Criollo variety. Their aroma and delicacy make them sought after by the world’s best chocolate makers. Finally, there is a Trinitario variety of cacao, which is a cross between Criollo and Forestero.
Chocolate: A Feel Good Food
One of the most pleasant effects of eating chocolate is the “good feeling” that many people experience after indulging. Chocolate contains more than 300 known chemicals.
Caffeine is the most well known of these chemical ingredients, and while it’s present in chocolate, it can only be found in small quantities. Theobromine, a weak stimulant, is also present, in slightly higher amounts. The combination of these two chemicals (and possibly others) may provide the “lift” that chocolate eater’s experience.
Phenylethyamine is also found in chocolate. It’s related to amphetamines, which are strong stimulants. All of these stimulants increase the activity of neurotransmitters (brain chemicals) in parts of the brain that control our ability to pay attention and to stay alert. While stimulants contribute to a temporary sense of well-being, there are other chemicals and other theories as to why chocolate makes us feel good.
I learned so much from this piece- did you ever imagine there were so many varieties of cacao trees? -Yvonne
Uzma’s beautifully-wrapped chocolates make wonderful gifts for others or as a treat to yourself….
Uzma began her journey in the culinary arts at the Colorado Mountain Culinary Institute in Keystone. There she explored a wide variety of cooking styles and influences but it was the idea that chocolate could serve as an artistic medium that interested her most. Being an avid traveler, it only seemed natural that she refine her palette by tasting her way across the globe–from her native Pakistan to Andulusia and France. She went on to collaborate with several Chicago area caterers–taking on the challenge of balancing high volume and the highest quality production. While serving as Head Pastry Chef at Wolfgang Puck at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporay Art, her surroundings inspired her to develop new tastes and visuals to adorn her chocolates.
Uzma shares her excitement for the art of chocolate at Triton College near Chicago, where she has served as adjunct faculty since 2006.