Please Enjoy Responsibly

I don’t know about you, but I’m an inquisitive person. I wonder about all kinds of things. Why do orange slices float but cherries sink to the bottom of my water pitcher? Where do socks with wanderlust go when they mysteriously vanish into the Bermuda Triangle known as my dryer? If the moon is made of cheese, is it raw or pasteurized? Did the Oompa Loompas take ESL classes at Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory or did they learn English in Loompaland? These are just a few examples of the many questions that gently hover over my mind, lingering there for a moment like butterflies stopping to visit a flower before they drift away. For me, the pleasure of being curious is generally in the pondering itself. Most of the time I don’t really care to find the answers to the questions. Rather, I delight in being a tiny, wondering speck on the face of this awesome universe with its countless, unknowable secrets.

Every so often, though, some burning question takes up residence in my mind and won’t be carried away by the breeze. These are the questions for which my brain demands answers and I must seek them! Here are two such questions: why are so many people addicted to chocolate? Why has chocolate had such a strong hold over me for most of my life? These are toughies and getting to the bottom of the chocolate conundrum will require substantial effort and energy, so hold on a minute while I go snap off a small square of refined, complex dark chocolate from the bar I’ve been nursing. However, considering the breadth and scope of this task, perhaps two squares of luscious milk chocolate would serve me even better. Come to think of it, just reading this blog post will demand that you exert a fair amount of brain power. You’d better take a little nibble yourself before we go any further. I’ll meet you back here in five minutes. I don’t care that you can inhale it in less than 15 seconds. If you’re going to indulge in the chocolate, stop what you’re doing, sit down and savor it fully, granting yourself the permission to be swept away by its magic. Believe me, I understand the magnetic pull of my fascinating questions. You can barely tear yourself away from my musings, but I implore you, fellow chocolate lover, escape into your happy place without any distractions and we’ll reconvene in five minutes, moods boosted and energy stores replenished. Here’s something for you to daydream about while you’re licking your lips…the Latin name for the cacao tree is Theobroma cacao which translates to “food of the gods.” That indicates that we’re about to enter a heavenly realm by partaking of our respective treats. See you in five!

**Intermission**

Well, did you enjoy your little chocolate rendezvous? Mine was divine. I decided to have one square of a 74% dark and one square of a 33% milk to cover most of my bases. There’s always the extremely pleasant 60-65% range but I only indulge. I don’t overindulge, so I’ll work on that category next time.

During our brief intermission, I had a bit of an epiphany. It occurred to me that part of chocolate’s seductive appeal could very well be the fact that it is the only edible substance that starts to melt at around 93 degrees, just below body temperature. Try tearing of a small piece of kale and allow it to sit on the tip of your tongue for a few moments. Now, be patient. In fact, while you’re waiting to see if any alterations to its physical structure occur, why not grab your copy of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and read through one of the Oompa Loompas’ English songs. It will pass the time and besides, they’re really quite clever! OK, time’s up. Any meltage? Nothing? Oh, how disappointing! A small piece of chocolate on your tongue starts to dissolve into a delectable puddle within seconds. That’s a pleasant sensation, is it not? So, besides its gorgeous taste, chocolate has a texture that transforms in a delightful way. Chewing it thoroughly into bits is completely optional, and in fact, not the preferred method for preparing chocolate to be swallowed, in my humble opinion. I like to chew it just the slightest bit and then allow the smaller pieces to simply melt away ever so slowly for maximum enjoyment. Did you know that it takes about six seconds to properly experience the many layers of intricate flavor when tasting chocolate? That’s a long time! Furthermore, as those six seconds of chocolate nirvana unfold, various, distinct notes take center stage in your mouth, exquisitely blossoming before leaving their final impression.

So, what’s happening in your brain while your taste buds are having their rocking party? Your brain is enjoying a similarly fabulous party as a direct result of the 380 some odd compounds that comprise chocolate and trigger the release of neurotransmitters. What are neurotransmitters, you may ask? Normally this would be one of my wondering questions that I’d happily allow to flutter away, but because I feel a responsibility to play Virgil to your Dante in this Divine Chocolate Comedy, I will provide an accurate and simple explanation. Neurotransmitters are brain chemicals that transmit information within the brain and beyond, to the entire rest of the body. They pass signals between nerve cells called neurons and those signals shape and regulate all of our basic life functions. They also have a major impact on mood and pleasures related to emotional arousal.

While your mouth is registering the sensation of the chocolate, your digestive system begins to metabolize its nearly 380 compounds whose charms are potent and undeniable. Chocolate contains the amino acid tryptophan which helps to produce the neurotransmitter serotonin. Serotonin is considered a powerful contributor to feelings of well-being and happiness. Chocolate also causes the release of a neurotransmitter called phenylethylamine which is sometimes referred to as “chocolate amphetamine.” It creates changes in blood pressure and blood sugar levels that evoke feelings of heightened excitement and alertness. Phenylethylamine elevates mood, lessens depression, and is responsible for a delicious quickening of the pulse similar to what a person might experience when in the throes of a love affair. And what’s more, Italian researchers claim that women who eat chocolate regularly have a better sex life than those who do not. My guess is that this provides an indirect benefit to their lovers whether they’re eating the chocolate themselves or not.

Thinking about breaking off another square or two, are you? Well, there’s more. Eating chocolate increases endorphins released into the brain which induces a sense of comfort and elation, while reducing the stress response. Anandamide is yet another compound found in chocolate.  It causes the production of the neurotransmitter dopamine which is largely responsible for behaviors around motivation and reward. Dopamine, scientists believe, teaches us to engage in feel-good behaviors (whether they’re actually good for us or not), because they result in a happy, albeit, temporary, reward. Not surprisingly, it’s one of the neurotransmitters targeted for treatment of addictions since satisfying shots of it are released to the brain every time we engage in a behavior such as eating chocolate that the body perceives as fulfilling.

It is interesting to note that Anandamide resembles THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), a chemical found in marijuana. That explains a lot. Now I’m starting to understand why, immediately after I’ve luxuriated in my version of Parisian hot chocolate, I literally feel like I am not safe to get behind the wheel of a car or operate heavy machinery. That means when I know I’m scheduled to ride my backhoe loader or trencher, I make sure to split my fabulous chocolat chaud with my two kids. Safety first, I always say. But all joking aside, I have felt downright intoxicated on high quality, dense hot chocolate…something about the velvety texture, beautiful flavor and voluptuous warmth traveling down my esophagus alters my state of consciousness and I feel positively giddy, alive and like all is right with the world.

I think I might be sensitive to chocolate don’t you? While I can’t deny that the sensation is highly enjoyable, it’s a little scary too. If I have just a little too much, its effects are noticeable and what goes up must come down, the laws of physics tell us. Though I haven’t specifically noticed an accompanying crash, there probably is one. I do notice that eating just a bit too much chocolate can give me a mild burning sensation in my esophagus. And because I’m very cognizant of my sugar intake these days when sugar rightfully gets so much bad press, I’ve learned to enjoy chocolate with wild abandon but in small quantities. You should too, Dante, so we can remain together in Paradiso.

While you might find me sampling a square or two of an exceptional chocolate on an occasional weekday, I have chosen to reserve the weekends for a hot date with my indulgence of choice. It seems to me that chocolate tastes even more delicious when I get to look forward to it and plan for it throughout the week. It’s not that I forbid myself from having chocolate Monday through Friday. It’s there if I desire a splurge, but generally I don’t choose it.  I’ll take a bite out of a sweet, juicy apple instead, knowing that some treats are perfect for now while others are best to anticipate for later.

But when I do choose the chocolate, aren’t you just dying to know what I reach for? Here, in no particular order are a few of my favorites:

Amedei Toscano Brown Cioccolato Al Latte, 32% $9

Parliament Chocolate Bolivia Alto Beni 70% or Dominican Oko Caribe 70%, $7

Francois Pralus bars in any single origin variety. Most are 75%. All are delicious. $10

Dick Taylor Craft Chocolate 74% cacao, Dominican Republic Finca Elvesia, $9.50

Cacao Atlanta Chocolate Company Love Bar Venezuela Patanemo 75% cacao, $16

Xocolatl De David Brown Butter 72% cacao Ecuador, $10

 Maranon Fruition 76% cacao, Peru, $12

All of the above varieties, excluding Cacao Atlanta Chocolate Company’s Love Bar can be purchased in person or online at The Meadow: 523 Hudson St. NYC or www.themeadow.com

Love Bars are available online www.cacaoatlanta.com or in person if you happen to be visiting Atlanta.

What’s your favorite bar? Please contact me to let me know and I’ll add it to my ever-growing list of chocolate worth sampling.

French writer Jeanne Bourin wrote the preface to a book I love called The Book of Chocolate and in it she talks about being an active member of the Club des Croqueurs de Chocolat, a chocolate lovers’ club that meets every two months to share their beautiful chocolate as well as their passion for it. I am drawn to this idea like a moth to a flame and I’m currently hatching a plan so stay tuned. I’m all about delighting in the joys of the table with fine fare and fine company so a Chocolate Lovers’ Club is right up my alley, and perhaps it’s an alley you’d care to wander down as well. I’m also hosting a fine chocolate and tea pairing at my home on February 26 at 12:30 pm. Reserve your spot through the Contact Me page on my website. I can tell you that the combinations I’ve selected will BLOW YOUR MIND.

In the United States, 12 pounds of chocolate are eaten per person per year. I believe a true chocolate connoisseur might be satisfied with a mere 5 pounds if it’s the best of the best, paired with laughter, camaraderie and a sense of playful indulgence. So be a connoisseur with me at my upcoming chocolate event, and in the meantime, grab your choicest bar of chocolate, come on over, and help me find those darned missing socks!