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Chocolate: one of the most evocative and universal symbols of pleasure. And now that scientific research explains that chocolate is actually good for humans, there is really no reason not to succumb to this divine pleasure. And with Easter upon us, chocolate was the perfect subject for my April food column.

What finally made me decide to talk about chocolate and paddling was yet another communiqué that I received last week from yet another serious group of scientific experts exclaiming that, not only is chocolate full of heart- healthy and cancer-fighting properties, but it also helps to stop the age-related decline of memory. It was then that I resolved to try to make chocolate part of any paddling trip, even if it's not the easily condiment to pack along, and even if it may require careful explanation to help my many chocoholic readers understand how to separate the good from the not-so-good: because not all chocolates are created equal when it comes to health-related components. It is also true that chocolate melts easily (and not only in the mouth), which can make it very messy when kayaking or camping. Not to mention that chocolate is adverse to brutal temperature changes and exposure to the sun. But hey! It's not every day that one can enjoy something that's so popular among people of all ages and cultures and that is actually good for you, to boot...

The magic that's in chocolate

Half of the cacao bean content is made of fat. But just like olive oil, 35% of this fat comes from beneficial mono-saturated oleic acid, which helps keep your heart in good shape. Another third of its fat content comes from stearic acid, which has no bad effect on your cholesterol level. The last third is saturated. Just like cheese. That's why scientists usually say that chocolate is neutral when it comes to its effects on your good or bad cholesterol levels. So far, there's nothing too astonishing.

It's the polyphenol content of chocolate that really seems to make a huge difference for health. Polyphenols are a phytochemical compound that is also found in red wine, berries and green tea. One square of black chocolate (70% cocoa) has twice as much polyphenols than a glass of red wine and as much as a cup of very strong green tea. These compounds called procyanidin are highly effective when it comes to fighting against oxidants such as pollution, inflammation, x-rays, and the like, which are a major cause for cellular division that leads to chronic illnesses such as cancer and cardiac disease. Many tests performed on groups who consume a lot of chocolate in the form of pure hot cocoa or black chocolate (like the Kuna Indians from the San Blass Islands, close to Panama) show significant low blood pressure levels in these populations. It is apparently due to the high antioxidant power of chocolate. It also reduces blood clots for the same reason.

The polyphenols contained in cocoa have a huge slowing effect on one essential sensor responsible for the growth of malignant tumors. Recent studies show that one ounce of black chocolate (made with 70 % cocoa butter) has a positive effect on health. But it has nothing to do with your favorite Reese or Oh Henry! candy bar... This kind of dark chocolate is a bit bitter. Other studies also show that milk chocolate does not work well because the enzymes in milk block the absorption of those precious polyphenols.

If chocolate was first known by the Aztec and the Mayan Indians for its capacity to reduce fatigue and to bring stamina and mental concentration (like coffee), it is now part of a healthy diet, as long as we can limit our consumption to two large squares daily... It is also a good source of fibers and proteins (9 g of each for a 3 oz portion), potassium, magnesium and phosphore too. Not to mention 500 calories in each 3 oz serving...

How is chocolate made?

Making chocolate into a candy bar or a fancy truffle is a very long and complex process, which explains why top quality chocolate is also pricey. The business of topnotch chocolate is held entirely by Belgian consortiums such as Callebaut or Belcolade. Those companies also buy Fair trade chocolate from local co-ops in producing regions such as the Caribbean, Central Africa or Indonesia and Sri Lanka. First, the cocoa pods are carefully removed from the cocoa trees with blades attached to long poles. A cocoa pod is about one foot long and weighs about half a pound. The pod is then opened and the beans are put in large baskets.

The beans ferment for 2 to 8 days in holes, boxes, or baskets covered with banana leaves. The pulp dissolves. Bitterness is reduced, the germinative capacity of the seed is eliminated, and the distinctive cocoa aroma develops. To facilitate storage and remove moisture, beans are dried under the sun for one to two weeks before being sifted through perforated cylinders that separate them by size. Then they are bagged, just like coffee. After a long cleaning process the beans are roasted like coffee beans, which allow them to develop their unique aroma. They are then crushed and the seeds freed from their shells. Those shelled cocoa beans are called "nibs". Finally, the grinding process allows the nibs to be transformed into cocoa mass or cocoa liquor. As the cocoa mass heats during the grinding process, part of the cocoa butter is then liquefied and separates from the mass, which will turn into a cake, which will be crushed, ground and sifted into a fine powder, cocoa powder.

The making of chocolate

The making of chocolate is another matter. After standing in a warm kettle for about 24 hours, the cocoa mass that still contains the cocoa butter becomes soft enough to be kneaded. It's then that the other ingredients will be added by the manufacturer to make chocolate as we know it: cocoa butter, sugar, milk powder (for milk chocolate), soy lecithin as an emulsifier and flavors such as vanilla. It's the cocoa used and the proportion of ingredients that will determine quality, taste and the level of bitterness. At this stage, the still granular chocolate mass has a long way to go before becoming those fancy chocolates we buy in specialty shops: it first goes through very narrow rollers to produce a thin and solid film. Then the conching process allows additional mixing in large heated containers called conches. Their job is to give chocolate its sweetness and velvetiness. The longer this final process takes, the higher the price paid for the chocolate. Low quality chocolate is usually conched for just a few hours while the best chocolate will be conched for several days. Finally, the chocolate will be chilled to the point of crystallization. It's then warmed and poured into large bar molds or chilled into drops. That is how the manufacturers will ship it to the chocolate factory. An artisan chocolate maker will buy the best quality chocolate and will turn it into lovely creations often filled with liquors, cream, nuts, spices, jelly, and so on. But you can now also get exquisite 70 % cocoa chocolate bars at your favorite candy store.

How to carry chocolate on a paddling trip

Chocolate requires the same precautions for carrying as does, say, cheese or eggs. It needs to be placed or piled in airtight containers and each section should be separated by a piece of waxed paper or aluminum foil. Lexan boxes are ideal for this job. Except for very fragile artisanal creations such as liquor-filled chocolates or truffles made with fresh cream (which must be eaten within 48 hours), 70 % chocolate will keep easily for 10 days. Once it is properly packed, make sure that you protect it from the sun at all time. The best place to carry it is still the bottom of your boat, where the box will be in contact with the cooler water temperature. Just as you would for eggs or cheese, cover your chocolate box with a layer of insulation, such as a towel. And don't forget that in bear country, it can be dangerous to carry chocolate because bears love it as much as we do...

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