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The Secret of Everyday Things by  Jean Henri Fabre





N the hottest countries of the two Americas, notably in Mexico, the Antilles, and Guiana, there is cultivated a tree of about the size of our cherry-tree, called the cacao or chocolate tree."



"What a queer name that is—cacao!" Claire exclaimed; "not a bit like any of our fruit-trees."

"This queer name has come down to us from the primitive inhabitants of Mexico, a people who tattooed their red skin with horrible designs and wore their hair standing up in a menacing tuft adorned with hawks' feathers. Their language was composed of harsh guttural sounds which to our delicate ears would seem more like the croaking of frogs than the speech of human beings. You have a sample in the name of the tree I have just mentioned. The Mexicans, when the Spanish visited them for the first time under the lead of Fernando Cortez, soon after the discovery of America by Columbus, were devoting careful at- [194] tention to the cultivation of the cacao tree, from which they obtained their chief article of food, chocolate."

"The same chocolate that is used for making those delicious tables we all like so much?" asked Jules.

"The same, at least as far as the essential ingredients are concerned. We owe the invention of chocolate to the ancient savages of Mexico, ferocious Indians who honored their idols by offering them human victims whose throats they cut with the sharp edge of a flint. The tree that furnishes the chief constituent of our chocolate confectionery is the cacao, the name of which sounds so harsh to your ears.

"This tree grows, as I said, to about the size of our cherry-tree. Its leaves are large, smooth, and bright green. Small pink flowers grouped in little clusters along the branches are succeeded by fruit having the shape and size of our cucumbers, with ten raised longitudinal ribs as in melons. These cacao-pods, as they are called, turn to a dark red when ripe. Their contents are composed of soft white flesh, pleasantly acid, in which are embedded from thirty to forty seeds as large as olives and covered with a tough skin. Freed from all these wrappings, the seeds take the name of cacao-nibs and constitute the essential ingredient of chocolate.

"Much as in the case of coffee, cacao (also called cocoa) is first roasted, a process that turns the white kernels to a dark brown. That is the origin of the brown color of chocolate. After roasting, the hard [195] skin that covers the kernels is broken up and thrown away; then the kernels themselves, first thoroughly cleaned, are crushed on a very hard polished stone with the aid of another stone or an iron roller. These kernels are rich in fat somewhat resembling our ordinary butter, and hence called cacao-butter."

"There is butter in those seeds, real butter such as we get from milk?" asked Claire.

"Yes, my dear, real butter or something very similar. Of what do the cow and the sheep make the butter that we get from their milk? Evidently of the grass that they eat. What wonder is it, then, that vegetation should be able to produce butter if it can supply animals with the materials for butter? I hope to come back to this subject some day, and you will see that in reality plants prepare the food that animals give us.

"But let us return to cacao-butter. To keep this fatty substance fluid and thus facilitate the working of the paste, it is customary to place live coals under the stone on which the seeds are being crushed. With a little heat the vegetable butter melts and forms, with the slid matter of the seeds, a soft brown paste that can be easily kneaded. With this paste is mixed, as carefully as possible, an equal weight of sugar, then some flavoring extract, usually vanilla, to give aroma to the product; and the work is done. There is nothing further needed except to mold the still soft chocolate into cakes.

"Such is the composition of chocolate of superior quality. But for the cheaper grades demanded by [196] the trade it is customary to mix in certain ingredients of less cost than cocoa, as for example the starchy constituent of potatoes, corn, beans, and peas. It is even said—but my faith in the honor of the manufacturers makes me hesitate to believe it—that there are so-called chocolates in which not a particle of cocoa is present. Sugar, potato flour, fat, and powdered brick are said to be the ingredients."

"And that horrid trash is sold?" asked Marie incredulously.

"Yes, it is sold; its low price attracts purchasers."

"If they offered it to me for nothing I wouldn't take it," Claire asserted. "What a queer thing to eat—a cake of brick!"

"It is never true economy to buy very cheap things. The manufacturer and the merchant must make their profit. And yet the buyer is always trying to beat down the price. So what does the manufacturer do? He substitutes something worthless for a part or all of what has real value, and then sells his goods at whatever price you please. He gives you something for your money, it is true; but oftener than not you are outrageously cheated. You have, let us say, only a penny to spend on a cake of chocolate; you will get the chocolate, but it will contain very little cocoa, or none at all, a great deal of potato-flour, and perhaps some powdered brick. You think you have driven a sharp bargain; in reality you have been sadly duped. For your penny you could have bought several potatoes, which would have been a far better investment, and the powdered brick be- [197] sides, if you really care for that sort of thing. Always be suspicious of marked-down goods, my children; the low price is low only in appearance and much exceeds the real value of the goods."

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