This afternoon I went to Intensely Chocolate: Chocolate Talk & Tasting at Olbrich Gardens, which was part of their Chocolate: The Bitter & The Sweet exhibit. James Nienhuis, a horticulture professor at the UW gave a (Powerpoint) presentation on chocolate and related anecodotes about a research project he conducted with the Mars chocolate company in Brazil. It was rather interesting and funny. (He declared that eggplant was not really a vegetable, but in fact a sponge. Chocolate, on the other hand, was a vegetable, except for white chocolate, which should be classified as an eggplant.) He discussed the history of chocolate, and the processes involved in making it. I was interested to discover how the cultivation process varies between Africa and South America. I'd heard about the horrifying labor practices used on cacao plantations in Africa. However, in South America cacao is grown by small farmers, and is growth within the rain forest, as it is traditionally a tree that grows best beneath the forest canopy. In that, cacao production is actually rather good from an environmental standpoint, in that it allows the forest to continue to grow, instead of being clearcut, as for the beef industry. Also, since the crop replies on insects for polination, pesticide is not is heavy use. Nurture the rainforest and you will have better cacao production.
Besides the talk, there was also a tasting. It began with our "tickets", which were small packages of M&Ms. He also passed around roasted cacao beans for us to look at during the lecture, as well as cacao "nibs" which we could taste if we chose to. I found it to be rather bitter with only a vague hint of chocolate, but I probably would have tasted more of the flavor if I didn't have a lingering stuffy nose. As another treat, he passed out Dove bars to the audience, though there wasn't enough for everyone. I was sitting at the back, so they ended just ahead of me. However, someone in my row was nice enough to break off a chunk of their bar, and then pass the rest down the row, each member breaking off another small chunk.
Finally, the "real" tasting began. At that point it was advantageous to be in the back, for faster access to the chocolate, which was provided by Orange Tree Imports. That was the best. There was a iced chocolate drink which was actually very refreshing. Then there was a long row of baskets filled to the brim with chunks of different varieties of chocolate, ranging from white to milk to an 87% cocoa dark. There were also little baskets of plain crackers to use as a palate cleanser. Each chocolate had a small printed description, and recommendations for how best to use or accompany the chocolate. It was delicious but rather overwhelming by the end.
Fortunately, I was able to sit in the Bolz Conservatory for an hour or so, to soak up the tropical atmosphere and chill out while I let the chocolate buzz wear off a bit. Needless to say, I'm still experiencing a bit of a sugar high. What a great way to spend a January afternoon!