Sunday, 6 November 2011

All About Chocolate and Gourmet Chocolate Gifts

What is Chocolate?

Are you a chocolate lover?  I have come across very few people in my life who do not like chocolate (unnatural in my opinion!) and most of us associate this sweet treat with love, comfort,  and special celebrations. So what is this chocolate stuff that most of us adore and probably eat far too much of?  Both chocolate and cocoa powder is produced from the dried seeds that come from inside the pods found on the tropical Theobroma cacao tree. In their natural state the seeds of the cacao tree have a very harsh taste and they need to be fermented in order to bring out the rich flavour. These days a large proportion of the world’s cocoa bean crop is produced in West Africa, and after they have been fermented the seeds are dried, cleaned and then roasted. After this the seeds then have their shells removed to extract the cacao nibs. These cacao nibs are then crushed to create cocoa mass which is pure chocolate in an unrefined state. This coca mass is called chocolate liquor and it usually goes on to be liquefied. Some extra ingredients may be added to the liquefied chocolate liquor and then it is moulded into the desired shape.  If it is not moulded, then the chocolate liquor can also be converted into either cocoa butter or cocoa solids.

Types of Chocolate

There are several different types of chocolate on the market today, and each type of them has its own devoted fans. The most basic type is probably the unsweetened cooking chocolate, which is also known as bitter chocolate. Baking or cooking chocolate consists mainly of cocoa solids and cocoa butter in differing proportions. Dark chocolate is the most elegant and classiest of the chocolate types and is definitely the choice for grownups. Dark chocolate is also known as sweet chocolate and is made from cocoa solids, cocoa butter or other vegetable fat and sugar. In Europe the regulations are that it has to contain at least 35% cocoa solids and in the US a 15% concentration of the chocolate liquor. The most popular variety and the one that most branded chocolate bars are made from is milk chocolate, which is made from cocoa solids, cocoa butter or other vegetable fat and sugar with the addition of milk powder or condensed milk.  My personal favourite, white chocolate, contains the cocoa butter, sugar and milk, but not the cocoa solids. Top quality gourmet chocolate is characterised by having a high cocoa content and be made with real cocoa butter, and not a cheap substitute like vegetable oil. A premium dark chocolate should contain at least 60% cocoa solids and an excellent milk chocolate should contain at least 30% cocoa solids or more.

Chocolate as a Worldwide Business

Chocolate is now a steadily growing worldwide business with several huge confectionery manufacturers dominating the chocolate market. In the US Hershey is a huge player in the chocolate market and makes the iconic Hershey Bar, Hershey’s Kisses and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. Mars is another vast confectionery manufacturer, with brands like Mars Bar, Milky Way and Snickers.  In the UK, the most famous chocolate manufacturers first started production in Victorian times, with companies like Cadbury, Rowntree and Terry’s of York becoming household names.  However, unfortunately, most of these traditional confectionery manufacturers have now been bought out by international conglomerates, with NestlĂ© swallowing up Rowntree in 1988, and Kraft controversially acquiring Cadbury in 2010. The Swiss giant NestlĂ© also acquired Jacobs Suchard and this huge company also produces its own branded chocolate bars. Lindt is also another big Swiss chocolate manufacturer and is perhaps best known for producing its cute Lindt kittens, bunnies, puppies and chicks. However, if you enjoy eating luxury gourmet chocolate, you are probably going to want to sample some of the delicacies produced by the smaller and more exclusive chocolate manufacturers.  You can certainly buy some very expensive goodies, and chocolatiers such as Godiva, Noka Chocolate, Dolfin, Charbonnel et Walker, and Gudrun produce mouth-watering, luxury chocolates.. Both Switzerland and Belgium are rightly famous for their gourmet chocolates, and I have to say that I have never seen so much chocolate in my life as when I visited Brussels, where there so many shops piled high with bars, boxes and gift baskets.

Why Does Chocolate Make Us Feel So Good?

Chocolate is a treat that a lot of us turn to when we are feeling down, but why does eating it make us feel better? Well the cocoa solids in the confectionery contain alkaloids such as theobromine and phenethylamine which have physiological effects on the body and it also contains the mood elevator serotonin.  There has also been research done that shows that eating a moderate amount, such as a couple of squares, daily can help to lower blood pressure and dark chocolate is also a rich source of epicatechin and gallic acid which are thought to help protect the heart.  However, chocolate is not safe for our canine friends to munch on as a treat, as the theobromine that it contains is toxic for dogs and can kill them.

History of Chocolate

Chocolate has been around since ancient times, with the earliest documented consumption being around 1100 BC in the Maya and Aztec civilisations of Central America. They called the cocoa beans ‘food of the gods’ and the Mayans made the roasted cocoa beans into a spicy drink called ‘chocolatl’ which they drank at religious ceremonies and special celebrations.  The Spanish Conquistadors learned the secret of chocolate from the Aztecs when they swept through Central America and introduced the delicious sweet to the royal courts of Europe in the 16th century. Chocolate was a very expensive commodity back then and was a luxury that could only be enjoyed by the very rich, who used to drink it as a hot beverage. We had to wait until the 19th century before we could eat solid chocolate, with a technique for making it for eating being invented in 1847 by the company Joseph Fry & Son, who found a method of mixing some of the cocoa butter back into the dutched chocolate, adding sugar, and creating a paste that could then be moulded.
Chocolate as a Gift and Chocolate Gift Baskets

Giving chocolate as a gift is strongly associated with certain holidays and celebrations. It is a very popular gift for your loved one on St Valentine’s Day as chocolate is considered to be an aphrodisiac, with big red velvet heart-shaped boxes of chocolate and moulded chocolate hearts being some of the favourite offerings to show your love.  Easter is another big holiday and religious festival that is celebrated by giving gifts of chocolate.  The traditional Easter eggs are moulded from chocolate, wrapped in bright, shiny foil and packaged in colourful boxes.  Many of these Easter eggs also have extra chocolates or sweets placed inside of them, and if you want to really splash your cash you can find large personalized Easter eggs in luxury packaging, complete, of course, with delicious gourmet chocolates, and with your name or an Easter greeting iced on the surface of the egg.  At Easter time, you can also generally find a great range of moulded chocolate gifts like Easter bunnies, Easter chicks and other cute chocolate animals. Christmas is also a holiday that is now very much associated with chocolate, with chocolate decorations being hung on the Christmas tree, chocolate gold coins being placed in children’s Christmas stockings, and gifts being given of Christmas selection boxes,  boxes of chocolates or gourmet chocolate gift baskets. In fact gourmet chocolate gift baskets are great gifts to send your friends and loved ones throughout the year, either as birthday gifts, get well soon gifts, thank you gifts – in fact chocolate is a wonderful gift for any occasion!

Chocolate Gifts Online

There is chocolate all around us in the supermarkets, malls and fine chocolate shops, but one of the very best places to find a perfect chocolate gift basket or box of gourmet chocolates is online.  Amazon has a huge selection to choose from, ranging from chocolate bars, boxes of chocolates, chocolate gift baskets and even chocolate gift towers to suit all budgets. So whether you need to find the perfect love offering for Valentine’s Day or a thank you present for your best friend, have a look online today and buy that perfect gift. Or maybe even a treat for yourself?

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