The ultimate extravagance, the never-fail romantic gift, the secret midnight indulgence -- however you think of chocolate, it's impossible to deny its hold on people's palates.
But whether you adore only Godiva, mainline Reese's Peanut Butter Cups or settle for nothing but the most expensive box you can find, you haven't tasted it all. If you're ready to transcend the truffle, it's time to look to the source -- the cocoa bean itself -- and to a limited-production, handcrafted chocolate innovation that highlights it.
Food of the Gods
The cocoa bean hails from the cacao tree, or
("food of the gods" in Greek), and it has had an intimate relationship with social power throughout history.
The delicate tropical trees are native to South America, where their beans have been harvested and used by humans for over 3,000 years.
The Mayans brought the tree to Central America, and the Aztecs were the originators of
, a drink of crushed cocoa beans and water mixed with spices, chiles and vanilla, which was served to royalty. The beans were even used as currency for several centuries.
Cocoa beans were subsequently transported to Europe in the 1500s, along with other bounty the explorer Cortez and the Spaniards pillaged from the region.
Back in Spain, cocoa was also reserved as a drink for royalty, prepared hot and sweetened with sugar. It gradually spread throughout Europe, but remained an upper-class treat until the early 1800s, when eating chocolate was first commercially produced.
Today, beans are harvested from cacao trees in equatorial regions of western Africa and Indonesia, in addition to South America. It takes several years before a tree begins to produce its pods, the fruit of the tree. The average pod contains up to 50 cocoa beans, which are actually the seeds of the tree. The cocoa beans are separated from their pods and pulp, fermented and left to dry before they're ready to be shipped to chocolate producers.
At this point, the beans usually undergo further processing in order to be transformed into the chocolate we're all familiar with, often by industry titans such as
. But the most recent chapter in cocoa history is being made right now in Texas, with Kakawa Cocoa Beans -- the decadent offering from
Cocoa Puro, a small, family-run business that's found a niche among the chocolate giants.
In between running his business and preparing for various food shows, Tom Pedersen, the founder of Cocoa Puro, took the time to detail how he arrived at his product, somehow maintaining a tranquil sense of composure throughout (but, as he admitted, working in a house "absolutely full of chocolate" certainly doesn't hinder that).
Although he has no formal culinary or business training, Pedersen says that he has always been always attracted to food, but had no desire to run a restaurant: He felt more drawn to working for himself, while simultaneously motivated to find a creative outlet. He couldn't recall the exact moment that he fell "under the chocolate spell," but says that after an increasing amount of research into chocolate history and production, he "followed a thread here, a thread there, and it finally led to fabric."
And much like with coffee or wine, Pedersen discovered, the type of cocoa bean -- and its growing conditions -- have a significant effect on the ultimate taste profile. Forastero, the most prevalent kind, has a strong and bitter flavor; the finest (and rarest) variety, Criollo, has a far more delicate and unique flavor. Trinitario, a cross between the two, is a medium-aromatic type with a well-balanced taste.
Cocoa Puro was ultimately formed when Pedersen was 47, and the signature product -- pure cocoa beans, coated in dark, milk and white chocolate and then dusted with cocoa powder -- was the culmination of his extensive experimenting with chocolate and an exclusive focus on the highest-quality ingredients. Kakawa Cocoa Beans finally debuted at the weekly
Austin Farmers' Market in October 2004. As Pedersen happily recalls, he sold out the entire stock -- 15 pounds -- in a mere four hours. The next week, 40 pounds were gone in one hour.
Through word-of-mouth recommendations and increasing press coverage, Cocoa Puro's reach has expanded to dozens of locations in Texas, Seattle and San Francisco, in addition to the direct ordering online.
Pedersen has continued to tirelessly support his product by selling it at the farmer's market, taking the time to speak with and educate his customers, one on one, about the cocoa bean. With this direct connection, he maintains an intimate relationship with his product and its audience -- and still witnesses the transformative effect the first bite of one of his beans elicits.
And the taste truly is transcendent. The rich bitterness of the cocoa powder coating comes through first, and is quickly balanced by a hint of sweetness from the thin layers of smooth chocolate. The final, delicate crunch of the high-quality Criollo/Trinitario hybrid bean proffers a haunting, deep flavor, leaving an ethereal wisp of deep smokiness on the tongue and the uncontrollable urge to have another. Kawaka Cocoa Beans elevate the cocoa bean from utilitarian candy-bar foundation to a unique taste sensation, completely unlike any other chocolate candy and complex enough to be savored one at a time.
Looking for a unique surprise for the Easter table? Or are you just a selfish, intrigued chocoholic? Either way, if you place
your order now, these little luxuries can be in your mouth in just a few days.
At $28 for a 12-ounce bag, it is definitely an indulgence -- but after you taste just one bean, it's one that will quickly become a necessity.
To view Ana Dane's video version of this article, please click here