We may imagine that when botanist Linnaeus assigned Latin names to the world’s plants in the 1700s, his expression was somewhere between lip-smacking and beatific as he called the cacao tree-the source of chocolate-“theo-broma,” or “divine food.” Indeed, he was apparently inspired by Psalms (78:23-25): “The Almighty commanded the clouds from above and opened the Gates of Heaven. He rained down Manna for them to eat … the food of angels the people ate.” After all, from where else could chocolate have come?
Pre-Colombian America would be a good place to start. When Spaniard Hernán Cortés conquered Mexico in 1519, the Aztec emperor, Montezuma, offered him a spicy, bittersweet drink. Made from cacao beans, this “chocolatl” (“xoco”-bitter; “atl”-water) can be traced back to the Olmec civilization over 2,000 years before. Montezuma prized it more highly than gold goblets; the Mayan nobility buried it with them in their tombs; and cacao beans were legal tender with which to buy sheep, cows, and slaves.
Cortés brought it back to Spain, where chocolate became an aristocratic favorite. The Spanish planted cacao in their colonies and off the West African coast. From there, it was transplanted to the Ivory Coast, Ghana, Nigeria, and Cameroon-today the world’s largest producers. Within a century, cacao had found its way across Europe and into England, where “chocolate houses” gave coffee houses stiff competition in the early 1700s.
Not until 1828, however, did an enterprising Dutchman make this divine food sweet. He extracted the fat, ground the remains into a powder which he dissolved in hot water and, with the addition of sugar, voila!-created the world’s first sweet chocolate drink.
Still, no one ate chocolate until 1847, when an English firm added cocoa butter and sugar to ground cacao beans to create sweet, hard chocolate. In 1876, the Swiss added milk to the mix to create the hard milk chocolate we all love.
Bringing Heaven Down to Earth
Producing that heavenly taste requires some earthly steps. The foot-long seedpods of the cacao trees are harvested, the beans removed and fermented under banana leaves, then dried to prevent mold from forming.
The beans are roasted and the meaty kernels or “nibs” extracted. Grinding the nibs produces a liquid, the non-alcoholic cocoa “liquor.” Pressing this cocoa liquor through filters separates the non-dairy cocoa “butter” from the cocoa powder.
Cooking chocolate is molded from the unsweetened cocoa liquor. To make dark or milk chocolate, cocoa liquor is combined with cocoa butter, sugar, vanilla, and/or lecithin-and, for milk chocolate, powdered milk.
The mixture is then ground, reducing it to a fine paste. The chocolate proceeds to smoothing machines that heat it to 160º F for several days. Complex chemical changes develop the delicate chocolate flavor.
Accept No Substitutes
Seemingly, chocolate should present few kosher difficulties. After all, it consists almost entirely of the cocoa liquor and cocoa butter that come from the cacao beans. A few additives, yes, but these should be easy to supervise, right?
Ingredient substitution is one of the marvels of modern food production, and this forces us to check products very carefully. For example, some countries permit use of “cocoa butter equivalents” (CBE) in chocolate, substituting for natural cocoa butter. These fats may be from non-kosher sources. This is even more likely in the case of “cocoa butter substitutes” (CBS), widely used in the “chocolate-flavored” coatings found on ice creams, cakes, and candies.
The added ingredients also require inspection: Lecithin, an emulsifier to maintain proper viscosity during production, can contain non-kosher ingredients. And the powdered milk used in milk chocolate may be produced on non-kosher equipment.
Often, food production presents even greater kosher challenges than do ingredients. In chocolate manufacture, the machines-hot during production-are difficult to clean with the boiling water that the kosher code requires. Water and chocolate, alas, do not mix well; the fudge-like result can clog the machinery completely! When non-kosher ingredients are used on the equipment (or dairy ingredients before a run of non-dairy dark chocolate), it takes much care and effort-daunting to most companies-to make it properly kosher.
Orders from On High
Chocolate inspired Linnaeus to think of heaven; the Kabbalists enlighten us that everything we eat has a bit of holiness-a “spark” of divine energy released when we eat foods prepared in accord with the divine plan of the kosher code. A pioneer in providing kosher chocolate supervision of the highest order, the OK is proud to oversee production of some of the world’s finest chocolate. So when you see the OK symbol on a chocolate product, you can be sure that it’s not just divine-it’s perfectly divine.