Story by Mehreen Imam and Marta Kodin, with photos by Blair Thurman
The smell of chocolate permeates the room. The sweetness lingers the deeper you walk in. Looking to the right, a chocolate fountain flows amid trays of items for dipping. On another table, chocolate clay sits sculpted into flowers. In the back of the room is a table filled with chocolate bars of varying sizes and ingredients.
Chocolate is everywhere. But you’re not standing inside Willy Wonka’s factory — you’re in the middle of a science museum exhibit.
“Chocolate is definitely a science,” said Melissa Palmer, owner of chocolatepaper, who was one of the presenters Saturday, Dec. 8, at the Chocolate Science event at the Science Museum of Western Virginia.
Because chocolate has a molecular structure similar to that of pepper, coffee and vanilla, many food items can be added to chocolate for fascinating combinations.
Lots of people know about chocolate-covered strawberries or marshmallows. But what about a chocolate bar with ginger, wasabi, black sesame seeds and dark chocolate? Or maybe even a chocolate bar with chilies and cherries.
“As long as the ingredients mixed with chocolate balance out, anything can taste good,” Palmer said. ”Just like the salt in potato chips and the sweet flavor of chocolate.”
To properly taste chocolate, Palmer says, you must first examine the smoothness and the color of it. Feel the texture of it. Warm it up with your fingers. Smell the delicious chocolate flavor with your nose. Break it in half. Does it snap? Good chocolate snaps. Only then is it time to taste it. Put it in your mouth and warm it up. Now enjoy.
Several visitors did just that between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. at the museum’s temporary location in Tanglewood Mall. Other chocolate presenters were Bayla Sussman from Baylee’s Best Chocolates and chef Jeff Bland. The event was part of the museum’s Second Saturday Science series, which in the past has covered topics from fireworks to geocaching.
Julia Carter, a sophomore at Hidden Valley High School, went to the museum event after her mother told her about it. She prefers dark chocolate over milk chocolate, and though her opinion didn’t change over the course of her visit, she did learn that she could eat cacao nibs raw. Cacao nibs come from cacao beans, which are known as cocoa beans in America.
Cacao trees can only grow 20 degrees away from the equator. On these trees, there are pods with beans inside. Most chocolates are made from these beans, but companies add many other ingredients, such as powdered, condensed or liquid milk, lots of sugar, and more, which can hide chocolate’s natural flavor.
This also causes chocolate to become more fattening than it is naturally. Actual chocolate contains high amounts of antioxidants — more than even blueberries – and magnesium and iron, and has less caffeine than most people think.
Chocolate produces serotonin, which is known as the “happy chemical” because it can make people feel better, said Sarah McDonald, weekend manager and educator at the Science Museum of Western Virginia.
In fact, chocolate has been making people happy as far back as the 19th century. And it’s no surprise that it continues to spread the joy to this day.For more photos of the event, visit our Facebook page at www.facebook.com/TheEdgeRT.