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CHOCO-MATE : A totally edible chocolate chess set may have one drawback--it probably will be usable for just one game. But what a game!

December 04, 1986|JOAN DRAKE | Times Staff Writer

A recent news item said Polish police were appealing for assistance in locating a state transport company driver who had disappeared with a van hauling five tons of chocolate. It seems that in Poland chocolate is rationed, so only children between the ages of 2 and 18 are permitted to eat it. The driver was probably hiding out somewhere gorging himself after years of deprivation.

Fortunately, such is not the case in the United States. According to statistics from the Chocolate Manufacturers Assn., the 1985 sales of chocolate averaged 10.4 pounds per American. That may pale in comparison to such countries as Switzerland, where annual sales neared a hefty 19 pounds per capita, but considering there are Americans who eat little or none, the chocoholics in our population (and there are many of them) could no doubt give the Swiss a run for their money--or chocolate.

This worldwide love affair with chocolate is nothing new. Ancient Central American tribes are believed to have been the first to consume chocolate, not as the luscious confection we know today, but as a bitter beverage.

They had discovered chocolate could be made from cocoa beans, the seeds found inside pods that grow on the cacao tree. Impressed by the Aztec's mystique surrounding chocolate, the Spanish explorer Cortes took cocoa beans and the utensils used to prepare chocolate back to the Spanish emperor Charles V for tasting.

When the king sweetened the chocolate with sugar, it improved the taste, and the drink quickly gained popularity. Although the Spanish guarded their discovery, eventually word leaked out, first to France, then to England, Italy and the rest of Europe.

Chocolate made its way back across the Atlantic with the Colonists, and by the mid-1700s the first American factory was in production. All this increased the demand for cocoa beans, expanding production to Africa and Asia.

In 1828, a Dutch chemist invented a press that extracted part of the cocoa butter from the beans and produced powdered cocoa. This was the first step in changing bitter drinking chocolate into a sweet, solid form.

By the mid-1800s, chocolate confections were introduced by the English. Shortly thereafter, the Swiss began making chocolate, and by the end of the century they had not only improved the product, but developed the process for adding fresh milk to chocolate--thus inventing what we know as milk chocolate.

It takes many steps to turn cocoa beans into chocolate. First, the pods are harvested and opened. Then the beans must go through a process of fermentation and drying before they can be shipped to market.

After cleaning and sorting, the beans must be carefully roasted, cooled and cracked into small pieces by a winnowing machine. The husked and winnowed beans are called "nibs." At this point, the manufacturer may mix as many as eight to 10 different varieties to create its signature blend.

Next, the nibs go through another mill, which generates enough heat to melt the cocoa-butter content and produce chocolate liquor (meaning essence, not alcohol). This can be made into either cocoa powder or chocolate.

If chocolate is the intention, differing amounts of cocoa butter are added back to the liquor, along with sugar, depending on the type of chocolate and sweetness desired by the manufacturer. Still more refinement takes place, then the chocolate goes into a conche machine, where it is mixed and aired from a few hours to several days to produce a fine appearance and creamy texture.

Finally, any additional ingredients--milk and/or nuts--are blended in and the chocolate is tempered to crystallize the cocoa butter into a very fine, homogeneous mass. This process also ensures the finished molded chocolate will be shiny and have an even color and smooth texture.

Today, Los Angeles residents have a full range of chocolate products from which to choose. Specialty shops sell imported products flown in weekly or daily from Europe. Others produce their wares right on the premises using European chocolate liquor and fresh dairy products. Then there are the many American chocolate manufacturers--from mom and pop outlets making their products by hand, all the way up to huge assembly-line operations.

Books on chocolate also abound--illustrated histories and guidebooks, typical cookbooks to ones including personal memoirs. This season alone, half a dozen or more have been received for review by the Times Food Department.

There also are the stores, magazines and catalogues offering such edibles as chocolate golf balls, tennis balls and rackets, all sorts of board games, model cars, cowboy boots, teddy bears and computers, along with inedible chocolate-scented perfume, soap, pencils and erasers. There's even a giant chocolate aspirin, of course not guaranteed to relieve headache pain.

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