Chocolate has perhaps the most complex flavor of any food in the world. With the running count now numbering at least 40,000 compounds found in cacao/cocoa beans, this means that even the simply fermented “cocoa bean comprises more detectable and resolvable analytes than any other processed food thus investigated (Milev et al, Food Research International, 2014).” This is undoubtedly part of the reason that scientists struggle to tell us exactly which of the thousands of compounds give chocolate its magnificent, delectable and unmistakable flavor. It is perhaps most likely that this quintessential chocolate aroma is due to a combination of the many chemicals produced during roasting through various Maillard reaction pathways, but it may also potentially be due to an as yet undiscovered compound present at a very low concentration, yet still perceptible due to its very low odor threshold. And so it is at the start of the 21st century, as we find ourselves at the dawn of space tourism, regularly cloning plants and animals, and building supercomputers smaller than wristwatches, that we still can’t fully explain why chocolate is so gosh darn chocolaty.
However, even though there is so much we still don’t understand about chocolate, we do know that many people, if asked to choose between their favorite chocolate and any other beloved food, would not hesitate to choose what Carolus Linnaeus regarded as “food of the gods” (i.e., Theobroma cacao), and this despite the fact that cacao cotyledons just off the tree taste incredibly bitter and astringent, and not chocolaty in the least. How does such a transformation from detestable to exceptional occur?
It’s in the processing, including fermentation, drying, roasting, refining, and conching. More specifically, it is our control over and optimization of the chemical-based flavor changes during chocolate processing that eventually reveal to us a flavor of beauty! And who am I to argue with anyone who believes that this achievement is equally as impressive as Jeff Bezos strapped into a flaming phallic vessel shooting for the stars.