The chocolate tree, ‘ Theobroma cacao ‘, belongs to the Malvaceae familly, or Mallows, vast flowering plants family, which includes okra, cotton, baobab, durian, hibiscus and our humble mallow. (all belong to varied sub-famillies of the genre) Theobroma means “Food of the gods “ in greek.
The original name for cacao from the native Nahuatl (group of languages of the Uto-aztec population) was Cacahuatl,or xocolatl and was cultivated and used by the Olmecs, Aztec and Maya, but the Aztec couldn’t grow it as easily as the Maya and had a different relationship to it. The Aztec used cacao beans as a kind of currency. The drink they made out of it was a bitter, red drink, with the addition of chilli, maize, and other spices, and used in religious ceremonies and drank by the elite, or in the Maya culture, it was also drank at weddings by the bride and groom and both cultures associated it with the fertility goddess.
The Spanish, when they came across cacao, in1495 in the Caribbean, were not keen on the drink they were tasting so when they took it back to Spain, they eventually changed the recipe to make it to their taste, by adding honey and spices like Cinnamon imported from Asia, and drunk it hot, with milk. It was introduced at first as a medicine, but soon became very popular, just because it was very nice! However, the Church found that drink suspicious, particularly as it was meant to have aphrodisiac powers, and tried to banish it for a while, not very successfully. Pope Pious V eventually decreed that chocolate was allowed – some sources say he disliked it, others say he was an avid consumer of the chocolate drink…
Cadbury brothers are the first to invent the dark, hard chocolate to eat as it is, in the 1820’s.
Van Houten is the first to manage to separate cacao powder from its butter in 1828, which brings chocolate into its industrial age.
Kohler invents in 1830 the first chocolate with hazelnuts.
Menier, in France, is the first to create the concept of the “chocolate tablette”, 6 bars wrapped in the famous yellow paper, but it is Fry &Sons who truly understand that a mix of sugar, cocoa butter and cocoa powder can be made into a soft paste to pour into moulds.
The first to invent chocolate with milk powder is the Swiss, Peter, who then goes into business with Nestle a few years later.
Lindt, in the meantime, is the one to understand that grinding the chocolate paste for a longer time makes bars that melt in the mouth, whereas Tobler imagines the concept of a triangular bar with nougat in it, which they had tasted in France, but use the Italian word Torrone to make Toblerone. There is no need to remind that those industrials have known a great success and most are still heard of today.
Today, cacao culture is still done mostly by small planters (95% or 6.5 million producers) and in Africa, most plantations are under 10 ha. Whereas in Asia and Brazil there are mainly large plantations. Certain countries like Dominican republic, Mexico or Bolivia now specialise in the organic culture of cocoa – Dominican republic producing 60% of the world’s organic cacao, which is the origin of the chocolate we use in our confectionery.
Difference between cocoa and cacao
The term Cacao in English usually means a product made from the least refined or processed cacao beans, giving a product nearest to its natural state, but which has still gone through the mild heat of the fermentation process. (raw cacao for example).
Cocoa is the term used when the cacao beans have been heated and further processed, heated and made into powder, separated from its “butter” content.
Chocolate does contain polyphenols (antioxidants), vitamin E and traces of minerals.
History of Agen prunes
La prune d’Ente sur son arbre avant de devenir le pruneau d’Agen – The Ente plum on its tree, before becoming the Agen prune
The “pruneau d’Agen”, or Agen prune are made with from a specific variety of purple coloured plums, called Prunes d’Ente; they have a Protected Geographical Indication, which means they can only be grown in certain areas of South-West France to be able to have the Agen appellation.
It is said that this plum variety was brought back during the crusades from Asia and was first cultivated in French monasteries, where they also dried the fruit. The Prune, once dried, became a favourite food of sea-men, in the 17th,18th , and 19th century for it helped with regularity, and scorbut. It was brought to America by a French colon, Louis Pellier, in 1856 and spread to California, then South America, Australia, South Africa, from cuttings coming from the Agen region.
In France, the picking happens at the mid/end of august, by shaking the tree gently either manually or with a “shaking” machine so only the ripe fruit falls. The quality of the finished prune depends very much of the ripeness of the plum. The fruit are then washed, calibrated, and dried, mostly in ovens, for 12 or 24 hours depending on the kind of pruneaux (The Mi-Cuits kind are only dried 12h, or so we were told). Nowadays, before selling, the prunes are re-hydrated before packaging. Some are preserved using sulfur dioxyde or sorbates, but the best ones are naturally preserved by pasteurisation.
During the drying process, the prunes go through a great change in colour, due to oxidisation. The natural Sucrose content diminishes, and the Glucose and Fructose content increases. The Sorbitol, naturally present in the plum, also diminishes at the last stage of drying when “caramelisation” occur.
The drying process neutralises the natural colours (the anthocyanosides, which are also present in dark berries like blueberries) and reduces the flavonols and vitamin C contents; however, the antioxydants levels double. The Agen prunes get their black colour from the action of enzymes during the drying process; the polyphenols oxidases, just like those found in raisins. Both fruit, when dried, take the same usual black colour.
The prune is rich in Iron, high in Potassium, and also contains Zinc and Boron(a mineral). It is high in sugars: glucose, fructose and sorbitol mainly, which allows a long self-preservation. The sorbitol, a polyol, makes for 30% of the prune’s sweetness: because of it and the presence of Boron, fiber and Polyphenols, (antioxydants) it has a low/medium glycemic index. The fruit contains 6 to 7% fibre, and is rich in pectin. It is one of the dried fruit the highest in antioxydants, just below dried grapes.
The calibre indicates the fruit quality: the bigger the prune, the richest in sugars the plum was when it was picked, and the bigger and the softer and flexible the fruit is once dried. The calibration of the prunes often brings confusion: the smaller the numbers on the packaging, the bigger the fruit (for example, 33/44 means there are between 33 and 44 prunes per 500g).
We import our Pruneaux d’Agen directly from the cooperative to whom a family member of ours cultivates and sends their plums to for processing, in Penne d’Agenais, near Villeneuve-sur-Lot, in the Lot-et-Garonne, 47. In our family home, we used to have a “placard” which was used as a sort of oven for drying plums, in the “atelier”, but they weren’t as soft as the plums dried in the specialised ovens the Cooperative use.
Les pruneaux d’Agen fourres a la puree d’Armagnac, Agen prunes with a filling before dipping in chocolate
We are very happy to work with our family, to be able bring to Britain our South West tradition of the Prune, and make those special pruneaux d’Agen into delicious confectionery.