The funny thing about looking at the importance of cows in human culture is that I find myself doing research even when I’m not planning on it. I came to Argentina to research the beef-industry – Argentinians eat more beef per person than anywhere else in the world. But the first stop on my journey was not the famous beef producing Pampa, but to Bariloche for an intensive Spanish language school. Bariloche is located in Argentina’s mountainous lake district and happens to be Argentina’s chocolate capital and possibly one of the top producers of high end chocolates in the world next to Belgium and Switzerland. At the Fenoglio factory’s chocolate museum I learned some important things about milk’s important role in the history of chocolate.
The cocoa pod is native to Central America. Cocao – the seeds of the pod – are processed to make what we know as chocolate. The Mayans were the first prominent cultivators of cocao. They mixed it with chili and alcohol to produce a drink called xocolati. The Aztecs continued the cultivation of cocoa and used xocolati for ritual purposes. The first European to drink cocoa was the Spanish Conquistador Hernando Cortez. Not long after Cortez tried his first chocolate, cocao started to be exported to Spain in 1522 where it was also made into a drink. Portugal and France soon followed Spain in the import of cocao and drinking chocolate became a popular luxury for royalty and the upper classes. Europeans sweetened the cocao with sugar and added pepper for spice. Several hot chocolate serving vessels from these countries were on display at the chocolate museum.
It was not until 1879 that chocolate started to be consumed in solid form. The chemical composition of the cocao made it difficult to make palatable in its solid form. The pods are very high in fat and when processed or mashed they release two products. Cocoa butter and a liquid, called liquor, that is the dark bitter base for chocolate. This liquid is also full of antioxidants, but is unappealing to many because the taste is very bitter (try a piece of chocolate that is over 70% cocoa – it also will not have a very creamy texture). People were looking for a way to mix this liquid with sugar, to balance the bitterness, and milk, to give a smooth and luscious texture and taste (fat + sugar + fat = Yummy). Unfortunately chocolate and milk don’t naturally mix well. The high fat chocolate did not mix well with the high water content of milk (think oil and water). It was not until the Swiss born Henry Nestle discovered a way to mix chocolate liquor with milk by heating them both together in a powdered form that chocolate assumed the rich sweet taste we have come to know and love. Rudolphe Lindt then added the cocoa fats back into the “milk-chocolate” to stabilize it at solid form. This is when chocolate became sold in bonbons and bars. The American, Milton Hershey, came up with a similar technique at about the same time. Soon chocolate was being mass produced and sold to the “common man” all thanks to Swiss innovation and cows!
Nestled in between two mountain ranges and overlooking a lake, it is no surprise that Bariloche received a large population of Swiss immigrants, many of whom specialized in making handmade chocolate. The chocolate legacy lives on today. When you walk down Bariloche’s main shopping street, Mitre Avenue, it seems as if every other storefront is a chocolate shop. Even the kioskos (convenience stores) sell hand-made alfajores – a cookie “sandwich” filled with dulce de leche and dipped in chocolate. Bariloche’s chocolate shops look like they came off of Willy Wonka’s draft board, they are so decadent and artfully decorated. The big block of chocolate is anchored by deluxe chocolate shops Rapa Nui and Mamushka each holding down its own corner. Turista Chocolates, across the street, while not as artfully decorated, is so large that it feels like a chocolate grocery store. Rapa Nui lures its customers in the door with its beautiful and whimsical curving wood art deco décor, a brightly colored window display, and no less than two chocolate fountains. If you make it past the glass cases of bonbons and the equally appealing helado (ice cream) counter, Rapa Nui has a large full service café where my classmates and I spent a lot of time studying – and of course indulging in pure chocolate decadence. I was told that Mamushka is the best chocolate in town, and it is certainly one of the most striking chocolate shops. It has a bright red decor and 5 large Russian nesting (or matrioshka) dolls slowly spinning over the entrance to the door. (They did indeed have some of the best chocolate bonbons I have ever tasted, but as I did not sample every chocolate shop in Bariloche more research is needed before I can say for sure…)
Bariloche is also famous for helado (gelato with a silent “g”) and at the helado shop “Jujuy” I had the best ice cream I have ever had in my entire life – and I’ve sampled quite a few. The dulce de leche helado at Jujuy was so good that when I described it to two guys from the UK they didn’t believe me and had to try it for themselves. In the end, they agreed with me. (Dulce de leche’s literal translation is “sweet milk”. It tastes similar to caramel.) Dulce de leche is a product that Argentina is particularly proud of. Since it is essentially carmalized condensed milk and a national obsession, it is worthy of its own blog. At the helado shop Jujuy they also made the display of helado into a fine art.