The moment this pandemic is over (or, perhaps, almost over) I will be returning to San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, where the temptations will grow wilder and stronger. For Mexico is not only my favorite winter home but the year ’round home of my favorite chocolate.
I still remember my final day in San Miguel back in March. Don Day’s Wife was packing up the kitchen and said to me, “You know what you forgot don’t you?” Wives ask questions like that knowing men have no clue what they forgot or they wouldn’t have forgotten it in the first place. And it’s always “what you forgot” never “what we forgot”.
“No, Darling (helpful hint to other husbands: always use the word “Darling” when responding to anything that you’re being blamed for), what might have I forgotten?”
“You wouldn’t want to leave Mexico without chocolate would you?”
I did not answer. I simply slipped on my comfiest slip-ons and headed to Bonanza, dum diddlum diddlum dumming the theme from the Sixties TV Western. Now for those who do not know San Miguel de Allende and therefore do not know Bonanza, it’s enormous appeal can be easily explained. Bonanza is a food store that, in about 2,000 square feet, has a greater selection of edible delights than some 20,000 square foot supermarkets. In a little corner of Bonanza, perched above some see-through plastic bins that contain virtually anything you could ever want that can be scooped into a plastic bag is a shelf that’s chock-a-block with…you guessed it…blocks of chocolate.
The chocolate is confusingly named and looks like it originated in Europe. But it didn’t. It’s as Mexican as a ten tequila hangover. The brand name of this Mexican chocolate is Turin and Don Day thinks that it’s the world’s very best chocolate for the price.
There are many years that are important to me historically. 1066. 1492. 1776. And, most importantly, 1928. 1928 was the year that master chocolatier Don Pablo Traverso immigrated to Mexico from Torino in Italy…hence the name Turin for the chocolate…and teamed up with Mexican businessman Don Jesus Penaloza, to found the Turin Chocolates Company.
Turin makes those fancy chocolate candies with virtually every filling imaginable (including Grand Marnier) but they also make very plain, very ordinary blocks of chocolate in semisweet, milk and white. I call these the three basic food groups but usually only buy the semisweet (which in case you don’t know, as I once didn’t, is another name for dark) because that’s what Don Day’s Wife tells him to buy because that’s what Don Day’s Wife uses for cooking. At Bonanza, I purchase a kilo block for what I consider is a ridiculously low price of less than ten U.S. bucks.
Now as special and extraordinary as Turin chocolate is, you’ll note that I called those blocks plain and ordinary. I did it for a reason. It is not necessarily easy to find plain and ordinary Mexican chocolate. Mexicans are different than their northern neighbors. They like their chocolate with additional exotic flavors added, usually cinnamon, and sometimes almonds, allspice, nutmeg or chilis and it’s not always easy to tell what’s in it when you’re buying it. Don Day likes his chocolate without any extra added attractions. With Turin semisweet you get chocolate and a little cane sugar. Period. Well, not quite period. One of the reasons Don Day’s Wife likes Turin is the meltability. Yes, I made up that word but DDW tells me, “It melts so beautifully compared to other chalky Mexican dark chocolate when I’m making mousse, ganache or truffles.”
As Don Day’s dear departed dad persistently reminded him, money does not grow on trees. However, Don Day didn’t really give a damn. Because the next best thing does. And what beautiful trees they are, especially in flower.
V.S. Naipul described the forest where Theobroma cacao trees grow by saying, “They were like the woods of fairy tales, dark and shadowed and cool. The cocoa pods, hanging by thick short stems, were like wax fruit in brilliant green and yellow and red and crimson and purple.”
The equally eloquent Historicus said, “The branches do not grow low, so that in looking from the ground the vista is like a miniature forest hung with thousands of golden lamps. Anything more lovely cannot be imagined.” Behind the pseudonym Historicus, by the way, was the name Richard Cadbury…yes, that Cadbury family.
There are discussions…OK, make that arguments…about where those trees that produce the cacao pods and, after a little magic, chocolate got their start. Some say South America. Some say Central America. Don Day says Mexico, not because Don Day is an expert on the history of food, but because, hey, it’s like rootin’ for the home team.
One thing is definitely historically documented. When Hernan Cortes (or Hernando Cortez in my grade eight history book) and his conquistadors arrived in what is now Mexico City in 1519, at their very first meeting with Moctezuma (or Montezuma in that textbook), he was sipping a drink that the Aztecs called xocoatl. It was made from cacao beans boiled in water with spices and other ingredients added. It was a lot different than what we now know as hot chocolate or cocoa for, without processing, it must have been one bitter drink to swallow. Whatever the taste, however, Don Day also knows that Monty the Mounter (as we snickeringly called him in grade eight) was able to provide enormous quantities of service to an enormous quantity of ladies after consuming the beverage.
So how is that bitterness removed from cacao? What does the modern processing of chocolate consist of? It begins with fermenting the contents of the cacao pod until the pulp and beans can be separated. The seeds are dried, roasted to bring out the flavor, then shelled and broken into little chunks that are called nibs. The heat of grinding the nibs melts the cocoa butter, creating a dark, fragrant paste which is later formed into solid cakes. Part of the cocoa butter is removed from the cakes to make cocoa powder. Extra cocoa butter is added to make baking chocolate. Sugar or sugar and milk are combined to make sweet chocolate.
OK, so now back to the shelves of Bonanza and that scrumptious Turin semisweet Mexican chocolate that I hope will still be there when I finally get back to San Miguel de Allende. What makes Turin so good, so much better that some other chocolate? Well, you see, I have no idea. But I did try to figure it out. I wrote to Grupo Turin in Mexico City in my very best Spanish and asked them. Alas, they didn’t answer me. But your investigative reporter did not stop there. Just like at 7:30 each night when I watch Jeopardy, if I don’t know the facts, I guess them (always, of course, wording my answer as a question). So here comes my best guess.
There are basically four different varieties of cacao trees that grow beans used to make chocolate. Over 80% of all chocolate is made from forastero, almost all of which comes from Africa and, more specifically, the Ivory Coast. Another 10% is made from nacional which mostly comes from Ecuador and is quite similar to forastero. Almost another 10% is made of trinitario, a variety that originated in Trinidad and is considered to be far superior to both forastero and nacional. Last but certainly not least, only 1% is made of criollo, the cacao trees that originated in Mexico and are the source of the beans for the world’s most prized chocolate. Now, as I said earlier, I’m just guessing, but I’ll bet Turin chocolate includes at least some trinitario and, maybe, even some criollo.
Though I wasn’t able to learn the secret of why Turin chocolate tastes better, I did learn something from Grupo Turin and it’s what I’ll leave you with. Despite my mother’s daily reminder of the dangers, there is no scientific proof that chocolate causes acne. So please, leave something for me for when Don Day arrives back in San Miguel de Allende…lots of blocks of Turin semisweet on the shelves of Bonanza.