Tuesday, July 04, 2006

The Sweet and the Bitter

On the final leg of my round-the-world journey, a shopkeeper at Auckland's The Essential Deli generously offered me samples of New Zealand-made chocolates (including Schoc and Bennetts of Mangawhai). She then asked me how she could best judge the overall quality of chocolate products. Possible answers to that question range from Clay Gordon's "eat what you like" philosophy to the current global obsession with seventy-percent chocolate to the Valrhona- and Cluizel-endorsed elitist notion of terroir. Called upon to produce an instant read on chocolate quality, I decided on one of the simplest measures: the amount of sugar used. Look at the ingredients list, I told the friendly shopkeeper. If sugar is listed first, that's an indication that the chocolate maker is less focused on crafting an impressive product than she is on using low-cost candy ingredients.

The pleasures of dark chocolate (that is, any confection in which cocoa products make up the majority of ingredients) are abundant. I arrived home in Melbourne, Australia, last night and immediately broke out my array of high-cacao-content samples from around the world. The lack of excess sugar not only makes these chocolates taste better but it also renders them healthier. The antioxidant, serotonin-boosting, blood-pressure-lowering benefits of bittersweet chocolate are all over the news; a Dutch study even found that older men who eat cocoa products regularly are more likely to avert death than those who don't. However, as I settle back in at home, I have to remember that chocolate is just food and not life's magic elixer. This morning, I discovered a study [PDF] by Australia's Black Dog Institute that demonstrates that chocolate is entirely ineffective as an antidepressant. The researchers do point out that the substance's taste, feel, and texture when placed in the mouth do bring a marked amount of pleasure to most eaters. So keep things in perspective, eat some chocolate, and enjoy.

Chocolate in a Greater Context:
Chocolate in Context was recently mentioned on Epicurious. Egalitarian food editor Tanya Wenman Steel (who shines her spotlight daily on foodies and bloggers the world over) commended my "killer recipes for flourless chocolate cakes, souffles, and an amazing Earl Grey custard sauce that I could drink from a cup."


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