"Relevant to armchair cacao historians and budding chocolate geeks alike."
There are endless ways to categorize books on chocolate. Professional vs. home cooks; academic vs. flashy; or cookbooks vs. history books. Maricel Presilla's The New History Of Chocolate, Revised falls somewhere in the middle of...well, everything.
The book is divided into four main sections, with recipes at the end. The first, "A Natural and Cultural History of Chocolate," is just that: an accounting of the earliest evidence of what we know as Theobroma cacao (which dates back to 500 BCE, in case you were wondering) up to present day. There are a lot of really interesting and specific details here; if you're a newcomer to chocolate history, this is a great intro. Old maps, hieroglyphs, and photos of relics make it visually interesting as well.
The second, "Identifying Cacao," goes into the different types and cultivars of cacao, of which there are shockingly many. I've always heard about the three types of cacao: Criollo, Forastero, and Trinitario. Turns out it's not that simple.
Through photographs and concise explanations, she describes the differences between the many strains, their geographical locations, susceptibility to disease, etc. As a chocolate geek, I found this part fascinating and edifying; others might find it a bit dry. But at least you can flip through the pretty pictures.
"From Cacao to Chocolate" goes through, as many books do, the process by which cacao—the raw material from the tree—is processed into the chocolate that we know and love. The difference here is that much more focus is put on the early stages: what happens on the farm and details about how chocolate is traded on the markets; as well as how the best varieties are sniffed out, the subtle differences in the characteristics and flavor of different grades and varieties, and how flavor is affected by early treatment of the beans.
This brings us to "Tasting Chocolate," where Presilla walks the reader through her method of tasting. Since that section is quite short and very self-explanatory, on to the recipes!
The recipes (about 35 of them) are varied and unusual; recipes range from the traditional-with-a-twist (like chocolate-covered plantain chips) to European classics like sachertorte, to the adventurous (chocolate-garlic spread, anyone?). Many of the more traditional recipes call for specialty ingredients or equipment, like achiote or dried rosebuds or a corn grinder—not exactly the most practical for day-to-day cooking. But there are enough challenging sweet and savory recipes to keep well-versed home cooks busy for a while (and, honestly, that corn grinder's looking pretty reasonable).
All in all, it's a wonderfully comprehensive book with a fresh point of view, entertainingly written and relevant to armchair cacao historians and budding chocolate geeks alike. Copious photos and sidebars on everything from tempering technique to ancient Greek medicinal beliefs are a bonus. Maricel Presilla has done an admirable job of making cohesive the past, present and future of one of our most precious commodities.