A rich but bitter history

What kind of chocolate does a man who has logged 26 years at one of the world’s most celebrated chocolate companies recommend?

“I like dark; the stronger the better,” said Ray Fischbach, technical services director for Glendale-based Nestle USA.

The plug came during a lecture at Glendale Community College titled “The Art and Science of Making Chocolate,” during which the chocolate expert walked his audience through the history of the cocoa bean, from its earliest uses to modern-day processing techniques.

Cocoa was first consumed by indigenous tribes in Central America, Fischbach said. They harvested the beans from cocoa-producing trees, such as the criollo and forastero. The beans were then fermented, dried and ground up, and then mixed with water to produce a cool, frothy drink. The mixture was quite bitter, Fischbach said, and would probably have been unappetizing to a modern palate.

The great Aztec warrior Montezuma supposedly drank 50 gold goblets of it every day, he said.

“It was considered a food of the gods,” Fischbach said. “The cacao tree was supposedly brought down by the deities of ancient America.”

International trade eventually landed the drink in Spain, where it was sweetened, warmed and adopted by the rich. It wasn’t until the invention of the steam engine mechanized the grinding process that hot cocoa became affordable to common people, Fischbach said.

In 1829, chocolate pioneers developed the first cocoa press, which was followed a year later by the first chocolate bar. In 1875, Daniel Peter joined forces with Henri Nestle to develop milk chocolate. And today, technology allows fans to consume chocolate in all forms, textures and quantities, Fischbach said.

“Chocolate is kind of like painting,” Fischbach said. “You can use it artistically.”

The technical director, who has helped launch some of Nestle’s signature products, detailed the conching process, which dictates the final smoothness of chocolate, as well as some of the molding techniques. He also explained how white chocolate is made.

“You can separate the oil from the cocoa,” Fischbach said. “The cocoa butter is white. It still tastes very chocolatey; it has that chocolate flavor.”

Chocolate also has some health benefits, he said, including antioxidants like those found in vegetables, fruits and red wine.

The cultivation of cocoa trees has spread from Central American to parts of Asia and Africa, Fischbach said. Today, about 70% of cocoa beans come from west Africa.

“We spend a lot of time making sure those blends give us the right finished product,” Fischbach said. “We do it based on what is available based on the crop, what is [a] reasonable cost versus what is not. Blending is a big part of what every processor does.”

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