Beautiful things can happen when you pair chocolate with unlikely ingredients.
Why? Because the natural flavour of chocolate – the good quality dark stuff whose character isn’t masked by sugar and additives – is more than a single brownie-like note. In their natural state, cacao beans – the precursors to chocolate – contain hundreds of flavour molecules and these can form delicious partnerships with many more ingredients than most of us consider.
Just like good wine, fine chocolate’s flavour reflects the terroir of the region where the cacao beans were grown, their genetic profile, the fermentation process and the skill and techniques of the person who roasted them and created the bar. As a result, chocolate can contain a symphony of different flavours: fruity, floral and spicy notes right through to nutty, toasted and spicy tones. And home cooks can harness these flavours in in an array of sweet and savoury dishes.
The sticky history of chocolate’s use in savoury cooking can probably be traced right back to the Americas 2,500 years ago or more. Archaeologists believe the ancients of this region, who revered cacao as a gift from the gods and sipped it in ceremonial drinks, also used chocolate in tamales, a savoury dish cooked in corn husks, and turkey dishes.
Chocolate eventually flowed to Europe and arrived on the Catalan table in the 18th century. Very old specialties like picadas, sauces of crushed garlic, almonds, fried bread and olive oil, sometimes glinted with chocolate. Still today, these sauces are stirred into stews and braises at the end of cooking to thicken and round out the flavours. And Italian chefs in the 19th century working in the grandest and most affluent homes in Europe adored chocolate as a culinary ingredient. Then exceedingly expensive and exotic, chefs deployed chocolate to showcase their culinary skills, tossing it into everything from pasta to polenta. How does pan-fried chocolate-coated liver sound?
But for modern home cooks, surprising combinations can be utterly delicious. Take blue cheese and chocolate, for example. The pairing might sound unpromising, but they have more than 60 aroma molecules in common – the compounds that enable us to detect the flavour of food – and therefore marry beautifully. For added deliciousness, chocolate can also deliver contrast. The creamy sweetness of gorgonzola dolce, for example, craves the bitterness of 100% chocolate. So, park it in a bowl with pasta and grate a swarthy nest of bitter chocolate on top, and the result is intriguing and delicious,
Tomato and chocolate are amiable companions, too. Both carry green aromas, so combining them magnifies these notes, and chocolate also smooths out the acidity of tomatoes, adding depth and richness to their umami, or inherent savouriness. Grate a little dark chocolate into tomato soup, a stew with a tomato-based gravy or the classic Sicilian vegetable stew, caponata and it’s as if an invisible hand has turned up the flavour volume.
Much like a pinch of salt allows you to perceive sharp or acidic notes more clearly, cacao nibs – broken up toasted cacao beans that are sadly underutilized in cooking – add a touch of bitterness and a welcome counterpoint in savoury salads studded with fruit or cheese. And texture! Nibs yield pops of piquancy and soft crunch in vinaigrettes and dressings. Or, folded through dough when making crackers for cheese they will magnify the gloriously nutty notes in Gruyere or Comté, or the exalted maltiness of Brie.
The possibilities are endless. Chocolate pairs beautifully with tropical fruits and citrus, so it’s not surprising the lemony tang of the spice sumac is lovely addition, too. The union of tahini, cocoa and sugar to make a spread for good bread or toast has a savoury edge that’s like catnip (at least it is to me). And stone fruit like nectarines poached in a sweet boozy syrup welcome the addition of cocoa nibs for soft crunch and a gentle pop of contrasting bitterness.
There’s no question that chocolate deserves its starring role in decadent cakes, bakes and puddings. But its talents are infinitely more versatile.
All images taken by Yuki Sugiura and featured in Cocoa: an exploration of chocolate, with recipes (Quadrille, £25)
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