Food of the Gods.

Author:Labanca, Alejandra
Position:STYLE
 
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Originally revered as the food of the gods, chocolate today is tasted, analyzed and savored with a scrutiny and appreciation once reserved for wine. As the ranks of chocolate connoisseurs expand, so too does the market for gourmet and prestige products, from handmade bonbons to bars sourced in one country and Premier Cru, made from beans from a lone estate.

This intense attention marks a major evolution for the cacao. The small tree's seeds were first harvested some three thousand years ago in Central and South America. The Aztecs roasted and ground the beans to make "xocoatl," a spicy energizing drink that purportedly had aphrodisiacal properties. Its introduction to Europe by the colonial powers sparked an enduring love affair that intensified in the 19th century, when the processes to create bars and candies were developed.

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With their long tradition, advanced techniques and standards. Europeans uphold their reputation for making the world's best chocolate. If a product has more than 5 percent fat other than cocoa butter, it cannot be called chocolate there. The Belgians are the most exacting, permitting only 100 percent cocoa butter. As a result, most fine chocolatiers around the globe buy bricks of chocolate from European commercial producers, notes Alejandra Bigai, owner of Romanicos Chocolate in Miami. whose confections are made exclusively from Venezuelan cacao.

Among the handful of cacao bean-growing countries worldwide. Venezuela and Ecuador are the largest producers in Latin America. "I grew up with the best chocolate in the world, the Venezuelan chocolate my grandmother used to make truffles," said the Venezuelan-born Bigai. "It's fruity and delicious."

Bigai crafts delicately decorated chocolates in her small shop. Her signature truffles, with names such as Original Sin and Heavenly Vanilla, start at $18 for a box of six (1801 Coral Way, Miami: 1-305-854-9936 or 1-877-848-4897; online at www.romanicoschocolate.com).

Whenever Bigai can find it, she buys cacao made only with beans from Chuao, a little town on the Venezuelan Caribbean coast where women have traditionally grown and harvested cacao beans. "These women know how to handle the beans," she said.

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While she prefers Venezuelan cacao processed in Europe, Bigai also buys wholesale from Caracas-based El Rey, the well-regarded producer whose own consumer products are increasingly available for retail purchase at stores worldwide and...

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