Love bites

NOV 26, 2015
In his 1983 book The Chemistry of Love, American psychiatrist Michael R. Liebowitz discusses phenethylamine, an amphetamine-like substance that is part of a chemical cocktail produced by the human body when we fall in love, making us feel giddy and excited. Interestingly, phenethylamine is also found in chocolate, and so it is little wonder that the delicious concoction has come to be accepted in the popular imagination as an aphrodisiac.

Humans, in fact, recognised chocolate’s emotion-altering qualities long before Liebowitz put pen to paper. It is said that the people of Mesoamerica (a region in the Americas extending from Mexico in the north to Costa Rica in the south) were making drinks out of crushed cacao beans as early as 1800 BC. With the addition of other ingredients such as chillies and vanilla, such beverages were favoured by the nobility, and reserved for men because their effects were believed to be too powerful for women and children.

The Mayans believed their discovery to be an elixir of life gifted to them by the gods, and they drank it from elaborately decorated vessels. They even had their own cacao deity, Ek Chuaj, for whom they held annual rituals, and their soldiers were given cacao beans to eat in order to boost their strength and stamina. It is said that 15th-century Aztec emperor Montezuma drank copious amounts of chocolate in preparation for energetic evenings with his wives.

The Spanish were the first Europeans to encounter the beverage, at a 1519 meeting with Montezuma in the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan. Initially, they found the flavours too exotic, but later – with mass colonisation of the region – Spanish conquistadors such as Hernán Cortés brought cacao beans back to Europe, and sugar was added to create something more suitable for local palates. As it was with the Aztecs, the drink was initially reserved for the elite – and heavily taxed. The church, meanwhile, wondered whether it was a tool of witchcraft, and pharmacists promoted chocolate for its aphrodisiacal effects and as an aid to digestion. By the early 17th century, the Italians and the French had come under the treat’s intoxicating spell, and soon it spread across Europe. Venetian adventurer Casanova considered it an essential ingredient of a successful seduction.

Today, of course, chocolate – “the food of love” – is an everyday commodity, but its association with romance is as strong as in Casanova’s day. February 14 would not be Valentine’s Day without beautiful boxes of jewel-like bonbons, and few things are sexier on a dessert platter than glisteningly dark morsels of chocolate.

At three-Michelin-starred Italian restaurant 8½ Otto e Mezzo Bombana, executive chef Umberto Bombana seduces diners with mouth-watering desserts such as his Caprese, which he says “is a play on all chocolates with different textures and pairing”. To create the dish, Bombana selects cacao from all over the world, taking selections from Italian chocolatier Domori and famed French brand Valrhona.

Central to the dessert is torta caprese, says Bombana, “a flourless chocolate cake, very moist and rich, using Spanish almonds and prestigious Italian hazelnuts from Piedmont”. It is served with a white-chocolate and orange-blossom Chantilly cream, and accompanied by delicate dark-chocolate tuiles made with premium cocoa powder and Bombana’s signature bourbon. A velvety, light chocolate sorbet offers contrast in temperature, and chocolate shortbread provides textural interest. To finish, Bombana adds a roasted chocolate crumble for “a hint of saltiness and a new dimension to the dessert”.

When French rule reached Haiti in the early 17th century, the colonisers benefitted from a rich source of cacao in the Caribbean. Today, at L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon, head pastry chef Tadashi Nakamura uses chocolate from the Caribbean and South America in his sweet creations.

“This chocolate is not too bitter and also has aromas of dried fruits and almond flavours,” says Nakamura, whose Chocolate Sensation incorporates six different expressions of chocolate in a single dish, and is testament to the ingredient’s versatility. Ganache, sauce, crunchy pearls, cream and ice cream are layered in a bowl, and topped with a disc of decorated tempered chocolate.

Richard Ekkebus, culinary director at The Landmark Mandarin Oriental and the chef behind award-winning Amber restaurant, says different varieties of chocolate are used according to the type of desserts being made, which include mousses, sauces, custards, decorations and ice cream. For Amber’s Dulcey Chocolate dessert, where chocolate is made into a ganache and whipped with gelatin (a technique known as namelaka) to create a light yet flavour-packed cream, Valrhona’s Manjari chocolate from Madagascar is used.

With 64 per cent cacao content, Manjari contains more sugar than some other varieties, accentuating the distinctive, slightly sharp red-fruit notes of the chocolate. It is served with chocolate crumble, sponge cake, salted and caramelised macadamia nuts and cocoa sorbet for a full spectrum of textures and temperature contrasts. Ekkebus adds that Amber also uses Valrhona’s Nyangbo chocolate from Ghana, and its Taïnori variety from the Dominican Republic, as well as French brand Weiss’ LiChu chocolate from Vietnam.

For his gorgeous dessert of white chocolate and banana in a filo bag, Stephen Fung, head chef at Alfie’s, combines white chocolate with banana, lime juice and banana liquor. Fresh banana is set into a melted white-chocolate mixture made from Valrhona chocolate. It is then rolled in a sponge cake and wrapped in filo pastry and served with custard and raspberry sauce. “There is also a little hint of almond in the white chocolate,” says Fung of his creation – a luxurious and decadent dessert perhaps even worthy of Aztec royalty.

Words by Janice Leung Hayes
Photography by Andrew J. Loiterton