By Garrett Pekar
Students and faculty alike received a real treat at the spring lecture for the Honors Program. Dr. Romi Burks from Southwestern University discussed all things chocolate and even provided a taste test for those in attendance.
She said, “Four out of five people say they like chocolate, and the fifth one lies.”
Burks is the assistant professor of biology at Southwestern, where she created a freshman seminar course about chocolate. She has undergraduate degrees in biology and English as well as a Ph.D. from Notre Dame.
Burks’ favorite chocolate is Claudio Corallo, but she is fascinated with many different types produced around the world.
“Every person who eats chocolate has a story behind why they consume it or produce it,” she said.
Burks started with some statistics.
“In 2000, 81 percent of U.S. adults consumed chocolate,” she said. “The U.S. eats less chocolate per capita than European countries.”
Burks spoke of the gender bias portrayed in the media that women like chocolate more than men. American women buy 75 percent of chocolate every year, but no scientific evidence has been found to prove that the bias is true.
Burks discussed the differences of gourmet and mass-produced chocolate.
“Hershey’s is not real chocolate. Sugar is the first ingredient listed. It’s candy, not gourmet chocolate,” she said.
She considers chocolate gourmet if it costs more than $10 per pound and has cacao listed as the main ingredient. Cacao is the name of the plant used to make chocolate. Scharffen Berger, Claudio Corallo and Askinosie are, by her standards, a few gourmet brands.
Burks explained the intensive process of making chocolate.
Chocolate is derived from a unique fruit that grows on the trunk of the cocoa tree. Pods from the tree contain flesh (fruit) that is fermented, which gives it flavor. Winnowing is next and takes the shell from the beans. Then it is roasted. After that comes the removal of the cocoa butter, the most expensive part of making chocolate. Now, it is also called liquor. Conching (pressing) and tempering (heating and cooling) are the final steps to create the product.
Theobroma cacao is the scientific name for the cocoa plant. Theobroma actually means “food of the gods.”
Chocolate was thought of as a spiritual bridge between earth and heaven by ancient cultures. Chocolate was really a drink before it was solid candy bar.
Burks also talked about different additives used in chocolate.
The most common is vanilla, but some chocolates contain pop rocks candies. One brand of chocolate even has bits of bacon in it.
All that was left was to taste the different kinds of chocolate. Burks prepared samples just for that purpose.
She said you have to listen, smell and then taste to truly judge chocolate.
“If you can hear the snap when you break it, it means it’s fresh.”
She also encouraged tasters to let it melt in the mouth, instead of chewing.
White chocolate was one of the samples in the packet. It is made with cocoa butter and sugar. It contains no cacao at all. Cocoa butter by itself is bitter, but the sugar makes it sweet.
Freshman nursing major, Jordan Lara, volunteered to taste something special during the lecture. He tried the nibs or the raw cacao containing no sugar.
“They were disgusting,” he said. “Very bitter.”
Scharffen Berger is the best gourmet chocolate in Burks’ opinion. Divine is the best mass-marketed brand of chocolate.
Burks said scientific studies show that chocolate can lower blood pressure.
Sophomore history major Kathryne Frey enjoyed Burks’ presentation.
“I never knew how hard it is to make chocolate,” she said. “I liked the 75 percent chocolate the best. It tasted woodsy and wild. It took forever to melt in my mouth.”