Having been away from these pages for a couple of months, I'm delighted to be back and sharing this time with you. With March comes Easter and I thought it a good time to look at chocolate. There is a lot of confusion in regards to the entire issue of chocolate, especially around the terms cacao vs cocoa, and raw vs not raw cocoa.
The terms Cacao and Cocoa can be quite confusing, but the view held by many chocolate experts is that the correct term for the beans is Cacao (an old and original name) and the correct term for powder is Cocoa ('raw' or not), a newer interpretation of the word. These are the terms most often used by the chocolate industry, though to be fair, very interchangeably - it can be very confusing! It's important here to note that the term Cacao does not refer to a 'raw' product - an easy mistake to make as the raw food movement has co-opted this term to define their product.
Chocolate, as we know it, is the end result of a long process. Seeds from the Cacao tree (Theobroma Cacao) are firstly scooped out of the large pods, and left to ferment and then spread out to dry. At this stage, the beans are considered to be 'raw', but it should be fully understood that to be raw they must not go over 40 degrees C. This is virtually impossible during fermentation and industrial processing, and there is a view among many that most of what is sold as raw beans/nibs/butter/powder is not truly raw. Big Tree Farm in Bali is considered to be the only true producer of raw cacao/cocoa products and they are very different from what you will generally see - the butter especially, which is quite dark and gritty. Back to those beans left to ferment.
After this, the fermented beans go on to be roasted and shelled; the end result we know as a nib, which can be left whole or broken into pieces. The full flavour that is chocolate is realised only by roasting. Indeed, Ben Ripple from Big Tree Farm describes the flavor (of the nibs, cocoa and butter) before roasting as astringent, grassy and herby. The nibs are then ground to form a thick paste known as cocoa liquor, made up of fat (cocoa butter) and cocoa solids, and in some, but most certainly not all cases, vanilla and sugar is added at this stage. The liquor is then pressed to remove most of the fat and the remaining solids are ground/sifted to what we know as cocoa powder. Cocoa is a lot like coffee, quite acidic. This varies with the variety of bean, and is also increased when the fat is removed. As with coffee, the quality and variety of the bean is everything, poorer quality generally being more acidic.
Within the raw food movement, a view is held that raw cocoa nibs and all products that come from them are more nutritious and preferable, but this is highly contentious and hotly debated, even within the raw food movement. Many of the leading raw food advocates (Victoria Butenko, Fred Bischi etc) see it only as a stimulant, and not in any way as a food. The brands I have tried may have higher levels of phytonutrients but, in my experience, a harsher flavour.
When you, the consumer, go to buy cocoa, what should you be looking for? You may be tempted to buy a raw cacao (but in fact, it could rightly also be called cocoa) thinking it is 'healthier' and in some ways it may have slightly more antioxidants left in it. But you could also rightly ask if it truly is raw. You may see a packet of 'organic/fair trade /ethical cocoa' and be tempted with that. What you will find in both cases is that unless those beans are of the highest quality and variety it will be bitter and acidic. The 'raw' cocoa will most likely have less chocolate flavor, for reasons discussed above.
Also available is a 'Dutched' cocoa - because cocoa is very acidic (especially in poor quality beans) a Dutchman invented a process of alkalinising the powder. This is known as Dutched cocoa and I use the Green & Blacks brand (which is done is a more holistic manner). As a note, I only ever use organic/fair trade/ethical etc cocoa and its products (cocoa butter, chocolate bars in all their variety) and there are some very good brands, such as Rapunzel, Green & Blacks and Dagoba for example. The bad stories and raps you hear about cocoa and its products are in relation to conventional cocoa, which is a product I wouldn't touch with a ten foot barge pole.
If you are planning on baking a chocolate cake this Easter, you will need to know if you are dealing with Dutched or undutched. When it's undutched (raw or not) you will be dealing with acidity, and that is why in many a Devils Food Cake recipe you will see bicarbonate of soda on the ingredients list. Together the alkaline soda and the acid from the chocolate will react and produce carbon dioxide to raise the cake. If you add a Dutched cocoa, you won't get the rise, and the flavor of the alkaline soda will be marked as it has not been "used", so to speak, by the acid cocoa. So you need to know. In baking, you can't just swap one for the other.
When using an undutched cocoa (raw or not) in a chocolate bar/choc treat as in the recipe below, chocolate custard etc) it is the sugar (or maple syrup, or honey or sweetener) that buffers the acidity and makes it taste delicious. It's very, very rare to come across cocoa powder (raw or not) from very high quality beans - I see more of this used by artisan chocolate makers in the US.
The Cocoa Nib and all its products are one of Nature's special gifts, but to be used with respect and in moderation and balance. They should always be of the highest quality, with ethical growing and production values, and this is not the sole domain of raw cacao (which could rightly also be called cocoa).
Rather than some of the more dubious chocolate products around this Easter, you might like to try the fudge recipe below, too delicious for words and ridiculously easy. May your Easter be filled with delicious somethings and many, many delicious moments with family and friends.
Enjoy Jude's Chocolate and Coconut Fudge in our Recipes archive
Jude Blereau is a wholefood cook and writer based on Perth. www.wholefoodcooking.com.au