Thursday, December 25, 2008

Food of the Gods

I finished reading an interesting book the other night called Food of the Gods, written by Brandon Head (and available at Gutenberg for free).

When one thinks of the marvellously nourishing and stimulating virtue of cocoa, and of the exquisite and irresistible dainties prepared from it, one cannot wonder that the great Linnæus should have named it theo broma, "the food of the gods." No other natural product, with the exception of milk, can be said to serve equally well as food or drink, or to possess nourishing and stimulating properties in such well-adjusted proportions.
The book starts with the above description of its main subject and goes on to detail the growth, cultivation and manufacture of cocoa over its long history.

Its prose is somewhat flowery and it is a bit dated in parts, but if you ever wanted to know what makes possible a delicious cup of hot chocolate, or any of the other chocolate sweets you treasure, this book is a delightful read that meets that purpose.

You will discover the specific thoughts and the specific actions that were and are required for the taste of heaven so many cherish.

Entering now, and turning into the private station, we see thousands of sacks of the freshly-imported beans being transferred to the neighbouring stores. The new arrivals must first be sifted and picked over to get rid of any that may be unsound, or of any foreign material still remaining. This is accomplished by a sorting and winnowing machine, which delivers by separate shoots the cleaned beans, graded according to size, and the dust and foreign matter.

A battery of roasters await the survivors of this operation, which are automatically conveyed to the hoppers. High-pressure steam supplies the requisite heat without waste or smoke, and as the huge drums slowly rotate, experienced workmen, on whose judgment great reliance is placed, carefully watch their contents, and decide when precisely the right degree of roasting has been attained to secure the richest aroma.

Then they are passed through a cooling chamber, after which they are in condition for "breaking down." This consists in cracking the shells of the beans, and releasing the kernels or "nibs," from which the shells and dust are winnowed by a powerful blast. It is accomplished by carrying the beans mechanically to the cracking machine at a considerable height, whence husks and nibs are allowed to fall before the winnower: the separated nibs are assorted according to size...

"Now comes the important process of grinding, performed between horizontal mill-stones, the friction of which produces heat and melts the "butter," while it grinds the "nibs" till the whole mass flows, solidifying into a brittle cake when cold.

The thick fluid of the consistency of treacle flowing from the grinding-mills is poured into round metal pots, the top and bottom of which are lined with pads of felt, and these are, when filled, put under a powerful hydraulic press, which extracts a large percentage of the natural oil or butter.

The pressure is at first light, but as soon as the oil begins to flow the remaining mass in the press-pot is stiffened into the nature of india rubber, and upon this it is safe to place any pressure that is desired. As it is not advisable to extract all the butter possible, the pressure is regulated to give the required result.

In the end a firm, dry cake is taken from the press, and when cool is ground again to the consistency of flour; this is the "cocoa essence" for which the firm of Cadbury is so well known in all parts of the world.

I don't know about you, but I found this process fascinating! Eating or drinking chocolate will never be the same again.

Of course, as the book was written at the turn of the last century--and as I've noted above--parts of this are undoubtedly dated. We may expect, for instance, that machines have an even greater role than before and that the whole process is done on a larger scale. But what fundamentally makes my cheap and delicious cup of hot chocolate possible remains the same.

Can you name what makes it so? Each step of cocoa's growth and cultivation was chosen on what basis and by what faculty? Each step of its somewhat complex processing was made possible by what attribute of man? And more, what allows you--the person reading this--potentially able to enjoy the end result of this long process?

The answer, I would say, is the capacity to think that you, and every individual, has. The thought other individuals put into the growth and manufacture of cocoa make a whole variety of products possible. And the thought you personally put into your work allows you to afford (among other things) all the delicious end products made from this cocoa essence.

You may say that this is not important. But it actually is--and monumentally so. Because knowing clearly what makes a single cup of hot chocolate possible allows you to more easily name the source of a ton of other things you value.

This will prevent you from unwittingly attacking the root cause of all you esteem highly in this life--and it will allow you to do full justice to the best in others and the best in yourself that allows all these treats to be enjoyed.

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