• Otter Views: Chocolate Festival

    Otter Views – Chocolate Festival

    Tom Stevens for CST


    As one whose life trajectory is marked out in Peanut M&Ms, I was an easy sell for Sunday’s 7th Annual Santa Cruz Chocolate Festival. “When is it? I’ll drive!” was all I needed to say. Guiding our safari was a conscientious Belgian chocolatier, so I prudently groomed my truck beforehand of vagrant M&M packets.

    I was pleased the festival site was the Cocoanut Grove ballroom, for the place is nearly as venerable as chocolate itself. It was here that Prohibition gangsters delivered bootleg liquor from speedboats at the Santa Cruz wharf; here that bobbysoxers jitterbugged to wartime Swing Era bands touring the West Coast.

    More recently, the Grove bid a sad farewell to the Miss California pageant after protesting feminists clad in bologna-slice bikinis picketed outside. I missed that, but I did get to see other costumes when Cocoanut Grove hosted the Good Times newspaper’s annual Halloween Ball.

    “This stairwell was the place to watch for costumes,” I explained. We were standing in one of several lines that snaked up the Cocoanut Grove’s ornate main stairway, waiting to get our chocolate tasting tickets. “One Halloween, the crowd started yelling, screaming and whooping. It was a 25-foot long T. Rex with a huge head. It could barely fit into the stairwell.”

    “Did it win?”

    “The T. Rex only got third place. Two dancing geckos won that year. They got a round-trip to Maui.”

    By now we had reached the top of the stairs, where aproned volunteers sold tickets redeemable for chocolate specialties from six of the 42 vendors waiting in the main hall. Along with the rest of the throng, we clutched our tickets and pushed through the double doors into a Willy Wonka wonderland.

    The expo occupied the Grove’s big main ballroom, an adjacent glass-roofed sunroom, and a view terrace whose wraparound windows overlooked the wharf, many sunbathers, and ranks of volleyball nets along Main Beach. It was a warm day, and the ocean sparkled invitingly. The chocolate would not have done well out there.

    But inside, it was going gangbusters. A tri-fold brochure identified all the vendors by number, but we just followed our noses from booth to booth. One place had chocolate-dipped bananas; another offered hot chocolate drinks; a third specialized in truffles; a fourth in toffees; a fifth in restaurant entrees using chocolate and chilis.

    You could try chocolate candies, cakes, cupcakes and ice creams. You could sample chocolate fondues and mole chicken. There were “shamanic” recipes from Mexico, chocolates made with sea salts, acai-based chocolates to lower blood pressure, and decadent chocolates designed to overwhelm the brain’s pleasure centers.

    The Mexico connection seemed especially appropriate, as Wikipedia tells me that was one of chocolate’s points of origin. Many centuries before Peanut M&Ms, the ancient Toltecs, Aztecs and Mayans used ground cocoa seeds to produce a bitter, frothy drink called “xocolati” that the Aztecs drank cold; the Mayans, hot. The Aztecs supposedly drank theirs to honor Xochiquetzal, the goddess of fertility. Now we offer chocolates on Valentine’s Day.

    So venerated were the cocoa beans that went into xocolati that they were used as currency. A live turkey cost 100 beans; a ripe avocado, three. The first Europeans to learn of all this were the Spanish conquistadores of Hernan Cortes, who watched the Aztec emperor Montezuma consume 50 cups of xocolati daily and smoke “tobacco perfumed with liquid amber.”

    Once cocoa beans reached the Old World, the great chefs of Spain, Holland, Germany, England, Belgium, France and Switzerland set about making the “bitter drink” palatable to Europeans. Out went the chilis and achiote; in came cinnamon, cane sugar, sweet spices and milk.     Like the ancient Mezo-Americans, Europeans drank their chocolate until the industrial revolution created the machinery and processes for candy bars, chocolate bricks, truffles and other solid confections. Wikipedia credits Germany for the first chocolate bar (1839), Switzerland for milk chocolate (1875) and America for “white chocolate” (1955). Belgians reputedly make the best chocolate.

    One table at the Santa Cruz fair was staffed by students from the Cabrillo College Culinary Arts department. They displayed ripe cocoa pods; cocoa seeds dried, roasted and shelled; and the crunchy “nibs” that remain after shell bits are sifted out. The Cabrillo students also demonstrated a modern descendant of the “conching” machine Rudolph Lindt developed in the 19th century to grind chocolate solids fine enough to create products with a smooth “mouth feel.”

    Evidently it worked. Chocolate is today a $50 billion-a-year industry worldwide, complete with the socio-political baggage that normally accompanies ventures of such magnitude. Investigative films document industry-driven ecological destruction and child labor abuses in West Africa, where most cocoa is grown. “Big Chocolate” turns a blind eye.

    My final internet click turned up a CNN news report from January 16. “Hershey’s to make 3-D chocolate printer,” the headline blared. I hope it’s a joke. If not, it’s time to summon the T. Rex.


    posted to Cedar Street Times on February 24, 2014

    Topics: Otter Views


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