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The New Taste of Cacao

The New Taste of Chocolate. REVIEWS
A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes

Ah, Chocolate, Food of the Gods!
"Theobroma cacao" - "food-of-the-gods cacao"! More than two centuries ago Carolus Linnaeus, founder of modern botany gave this name to the plant from which chocolate was made. And indeed, chocolate in all of its numerous and varied forms is the only thing that approaches what one might imagine to be the elixir of the gods.

In the last decade much information has come out about the inexplicably wondrous properties of chocolate, the most significant one amongst them - the unquestionable fact that chocolate soothes the soul. This notion resonates with more people each day. Chocolate addicts are coming out of the closet, big city restaurants are serving chocolate bars side by side with salad bars and sales of creative chocolate products are increasing. More people are beginning to apply a connoisseur's eye to chocolate in the same way they apply it to wine or cheese.

Hot-off-the-press "The New Taste of Chocolate, A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes" by Maricel E. Presilla is the perfect book to turn a chocoholic into a chocolate cognoscente. This remarkable book tells the story of chocolate from its earliest days in pre-Columbian Latin America to today's pursuit of the best chocolate and from the cultivation of the cacao plant to its harvesting and then manufacturing of the different varieties of chocolate.

Maricel Presilla researched and wrote the book to "bridge the information gap, to get [people] to know chocolate from bean to bar. I want as many chocolate lovers as possible," she continues, "to marvel at the pre-Columbian beginning and Spanish colonial flowering of chocolate."

Although still inconclusive, most scientific research points to the Amazon River basin and Venezuela as the place of origin of the cacao plant. It is unknown when exactly did cacao migrate north to Mexico and Central America. The peoples of pre-Columbian Latin America domesticated the cacao plant, dried the cacao beans in the sun, and then roasted and grinded them to make thick and fragrant chocolate drinks. In Aztec culture chocolate was an expensive trading commodity and a ritualistic drink of the upper classes. The author points out that by the time the Spanish arrived, chocolate had acquired "the status of legal money".

Drinking chocolate became all the rage in colonial South America as well as in most of Europe. As it had in pre-Columbian times, chocolate remained the drink of the aristocracy and the upper classes. The most significant change in the making of chocolate drinks that the colonists introduced was sugar. Since there was no sugar in pre-Hispanic Mexico, the people had used honey or some other natural sweetener.

Author Presilla traces the changes in varieties of chocolate products from drinks to chocolate bars and chocolate cakes. She makes us aware of the differences in quality and types of chocolate produced from the different cacao beans and from each region that cultivates cacao in the same way we distinguish between wine regions and grapes.

The last third of the book contains recipes for luscious chocolate concoctions, some from famous gourmet chefs and chocolatiers. Most seem complicated for those of us who do not have the gift of cooking. But culinary artists who can make some of these fabulous chocolate viands are guarantied to wield great power - with the single toss of a chocolate opiate in a mouth they can tame enemies into submission and acquire a slew of worshipers.

Maricel Presilla has written a timely book on a timely subject. The meaningful content and historical perspective of the book illustrate the timelessness of chocolate. A cultural anthropologist with a Ph.D. from New York University, Presilla also has culinary education from the French Culinary Institute and experience with cultivating and harvesting cacao.

The glossy coffee-table look of the book and the numerous photographs belie its scholarly nature and the extensive research that has gone into it.

There is one important consideration to keep in mind when reading this book - it is imperative to have a box of chocolates on hand because it is impossible to get through it, especially through the section on appreciating and choosing chocolate by color, aroma, texture and flavor without succumbing to the joint cravings of the palate and the soul.

Ophelia Georgiev Roop
Library Director
San Bernardino Public Library

ewsday, October 24, 2001
Presilla’s far-ranging, in-person research, accompanied by photographs of locales where cacao is grown, makes for a vivid story.

Saveur, November 2001
The New Taste of Chocolate makes it clear that remembering, and protecting, this tradition provides a payoff in every bite.

Chocolatier, July 2001
This is a book for chocolate lovers who appreciate culinary and social history as well as science and agriculture.

From the | April2002
Chefs are far less knowledgeable about the natural and cultural history of the food products they use and promote in their restaurants than one might expect. Underscoring certain specialty products is one of many techniques that can be used by chefs to entice guests to spend more money. In addition, many chefs attempt to "educate" their guests by highlighting unique food stuffs on their menu, basing their efforts on the assumption that even a rudimentary food product education can enhance one's appreciation of a dish. When put to the test, however, do these chefs really know about the products that they are promoting? By focusing on the titillation of the guest, have we forgotten the necessary and continual education of the chefs themselves?

Take, for example, our knowledge of the specialty chocolates that are currently available. Distinguished chocolate names like "Guanaja" and "Jivara" are commonplace on many menus across the US. Apart from the cacao percentage and perhaps even the region from which the cacao beans came from, what else do we know about the differences between these chocolates? Indeed, how much do we know about the culture and history and manufacturing process of chocolate in general?

Even if only to enhance one's own experience and education ( after all, does the average guest necessarily want to be educated?) a passionate cook would be wise to check out Maricel E. Presilla's The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Presilla's book of chocolate is a perfectly accessible and thorough work that gives the reader a complete understanding of chocolate and its natural and cultural roots. It is, in short, an excellent way to become articulate about a very useful food product.

The New Taste of Chocolate is certainly not a typical cultural or natural history book. Presilla presents us with 200 pages of color photos, sketches, artwork, maps and lively description. She begins with her own story of growing up among cacao trees in Latin America and then moves on to a cultural and natural history of chocolate, from its first uses in the kitchen to the crippling diseases affecting many cacao plantations today. Presilla continues with an educational chapter focusing on the processes and decision-making involved in the production of chocolate and then devotes the next portion of her work to the identification of cacao - a chapter that is fascinating to read, but perhaps a bit too in-depth for a culinary chef or a basic chocolate enthusiast. The final pages of The New Taste of Chocolate focus on methods of tasting chocolate and recipes - two engaging chapters that attempt to elevate the status of chocolate from its banal but popular existence to a truly sensory experience comparable to that of the finest food products in the world. After experimenting with the tasting exercises and selected recipes, such as Chocolate Jasmine Ice Cream and "Age of Discovery" Vanilla-Scented Hot Chocolate, one's appreciation of chocolate will certainly reach new levels.

Maricel E. Presilla's The New Taste Of Chocolate: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes, is a great source to become further educated about chocolate. An opportunity to learn about important food products such as this ought not to be passed up. We must remember that we are the leaders of the culinary world. Let us promote this type of education within. Let us be proud of our expertise.

Chocolate. What other food has such a large and devoted legion of fans? Yet it's likely that many chocoholics have little or no idea of where chocolate comes from or how it is made. Most would be shocked to learn it's a fruit—a big, strange-looking pod, the size and shape of a football, that sprouts right out of the tree trunk in shades of bright orange, yellow, red, and green. Or that the sumptuous taste of chocolate is achieved through fermentation. Or that it can only be grown within 20 degrees of the equator (so that famous Swiss or Belgian chocolate is most likely from Venezuela).

Chocolate is truly a celestial food, but The New Taste of Chocolate proves that its earthly roots are even more fascinating. Accompanied by gorgeous photos, author Maricel Presilla guides readers into the Latin American tropics to see the human face of cacao farming and to learn its history-the miraculous leap from bitter cacao seed to food of royalty in Aztec Mexico, and later Spain, Europe, and beyond.

The candy in the box begins with the bean.

Today, people have learned to taste the difference between great and not-so-good wine, cheese, and coffee. They've taken an interest in artisanal foods, and they demand quality. Not surprisingly, the flavor and quality of chocolate depends on how it is grown and produced. The New Taste of Chocolate introduces the new breed of chocolate manufacturers who are going back to old recipes and techniques to make amazing chocolate.

Chocolate fiends will gobble up 23 heavenly recipes from internationally known pastry chefs and chocolatiers such as Fran Bigelow's Deep Chocolate Torte, Elizabeth Falkner's Scharffen Berger Roulade, and Mary Cech's Chocolate-Coconut Soup with Fresh Bananas and Honey-Cocoa Wafers. The New Taste of Chocolate also includes:

* How to host a chocolate tasting party at home

* A lesson on chocolate appreciation and selection

* The tricky task of tempering chocolate

* A directory of chocolate companies, classes, and tours

A chocolate revolution is brewing! The New Taste of Chocolate will change the way chocolate lovers think about their favorite indulgence.

"It's not a coincidence that chocolate and gold are sold in bars. Chocolate lovers who treasure history and recipes will find this book as valuable as it is delicious." —Flo Braker

Maricel Presilla comes from a family of cacao farmers and is a respected culinary historian with a Ph.D. in medieval history from New York University. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Saveur, Food & Wine, and Gourmet. She is the president of Gran Cacao, an importer of premium heirloom cacao beans, and the chef and co-owner of Zafra, a pan-Latin restaurant in New Jersey. This is her fourth book.

Real-Life Kitchen
Cookbooks Have No Calories

By Sara Bir

If your lover is a lover of chocolate, Feb. 14 cannot pass without the requisite box of bonbons. To improve on tradition, however, include one of the many recent food-porn-worthy chocolate cookbooks in the mix; it's the gift that keeps on giving. Here's a sampling of some of the best out there.

'Bittersweet: Recipes and Tales from a Life in Chocolate' (Artisan; $35) by Alice Medrich. Medrich, the reigning queen of Bay Area chocolate education, knows her stuff. Bittersweet, her fifth book on the subject, is the first to examine baking with newer, high-percentage chocolates in depth. The recipes cover a great range--fancy to cozy, sweet to savory--and they hit the nail on the head every time. Medrich's self-referential style can get tiresome, but that's a small complaint for a book with so much to offer.

'The Great Book of Chocolate' (Ten Speed Press; $16.95) by David Lebovitz. For such a slender book, this cute little volume packs in heaps of useful, well-researched information that chocolate snobs and undiscriminating chocoholics alike will gobble right up. The Great Book of Chocolate is basically a chocolate guidebook, with descriptions of cacao growing, lists of the best chocolate shops in Paris and a small but well-selected cluster of recipes. You can't go wrong with this one.

'The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes' (Ten Speed Press; $32.50) by Maricel Presilla. This reads (and looks) like an extended National Geographic article, only with authentic, exotic recipes to boot. Presilla focuses on cacao agriculture and anthropology in South America and Central America, in the process revealing the true heart and soul of chocolate. People who buy chocolate based on what region the cacao beans were grown in will devour this richly photographed book.

'Chocolate Obsession: Confections and Treats to Create and Savor' (Stewart, Tabori and Chang; $35) by Michael Recchiuti and Fran Gage. Michael Recchiuti, one of the country's most gifted chocolatiers, has sold innovative confections in his San Francisco boutique since 1997. Co-author Fran Gage collaborates to reveal professional tricks of the trade in easy-to-follow language. Many of the confection recipes are only for the highly ambitious, but there are recipes for baked goodies, too--and with a book photographed and presented as elegantly as this one, reading just for the fun of it is satisfying enough.

'Chocolate American Style' (Clarkson Potter; $35) by Lora Brody. For those who just want chocolate and don't want to fuss about what brand it is or how long the beans were fermented, Chocolate American Style will satisfy many a craving. Brody offers a bounty of homey recipes, with humorous asides and few pretensions. Brody's recommendation of using premelted unsweetened chocolate made me cringe a bit, but this book will charm most home cooks who embrace nostalgia.

'Pure Chocolate: Divine Desserts and Sweets by the Creator of Fran's Chocolates' (Broadway; $35) by Fran Bigelow. Over the past two and a half decades, Seattle-based Fran's Chocolates has built up a strong reputation executing traditional favorites with flair and skill. Though rich with recipes for classic truffles, decadent bars and dreamy ice creams, this cookbook's biggest asset is its recipes for showstopping tortes, tarts and chilled chocolate desserts.


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