The first time I received chocolates for Valentine’s Day was when I was 7 years old. A boy in my class presented me with a tiny, heart-shaped box of Russell Stover chocolates, bought from the local drug store. I was instantly smitten, and would go on to judge all my future boyfriends by the chocolates they gave me. Some women require jewelry and romantic candlelight dinners, but give me a box of chocolate truffles and I will be yours for life.
Chocolate has been used for medicine, ritual, and for pleasure for over 4000 years – it’s no wonder we all have a special place in our hearts for this heavenly foodstuff. But where does chocolate actually come from? Well, the cocoa beans that form the basis of chocolate are actually seeds from the fruit of the cacao tree, which grows near the Equator. The seeds grow inside a pod-like fruit and are covered with white pulp. To make chocolate, cocoa farmers crack open the pods, scoop out the seeds, ferment and dry them, then ship the beans elsewhere, where they are roasted, ground, and mixed with sugar and various ingredients to make chocolate.
I’ve never figured precisely why chocolates and Valentine’s Day go hand-in-hand, until a pastry chef explained that it has to do with decadence, and some sort of chemical that makes our brain happy when we eat chocolate. Combine a box of chocolates with a bottle of champagne and a plate of raw oysters (not necessarily in that order) and sparks are sure to fly.
When I was attending college in Connecticut, I once took a train all the way into New York City, just to buy a box of Godiva chocolates. Godivas were considered the ultimate extravagance back in those days, and since I didn’t have a boyfriend then, at least I had good chocolates to eat on Valentine’s Day. But nowadays you can find a gourmet chocolatier in nearly every town, offering unique fillings and flavors.
So what’s my favorite chocolate recipe? Hands down it’s gotta be Maida Haetter’s Chocolate Cheesecake Brownies. Maida Haetter was the quintessential pastry chef of the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, and her chocolate dessert recipes are still the very best today. Her brownies are absolutely decadent, and take a ridiculous two and a half hours to prepare and bake, but worth every minute. The recipe calls for making a rich brownie batter, AND a chocolate cheesecake batter, and then layering them both in a pan before baking. The recipe makes 16 pretty good size brownies, and I assure you, that you will not want to share them.
The making of chocolate has evolved into an industry so large that 40 to 50 million people depend on cocoa for their livelihoods – and chocolate farmers produce 3.8 million tons of cocoa beans per year. That means every time you eat chocolate, you are helping small family farmers in West Africa, Southeast Asia, and Central and South America make a good living for themselves and provide a better future for their children. That means I can eat all the chocolate I want, guiltless and carefree, this Valentine’s Day. What’s not to love about that?
(A portion of this essay appeared in Jacksonville Magazine in 2015)