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8 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Chocolate-Makers

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Americans consume nearly 9.5 pounds of chocolate per capita annually, with December being one of the busiest seasons for chocolatiers. The sweet treat is made from the fruit of the cacao tree, native to Central and South America, although it’s now grown in regions all around the equator. When the fruit is harvested, the sweet, pulpy flesh is scooped out and fermented before the seeds are separated and dried. These seeds are the cacao beans, which are roasted (usually), ground, and processed into chocolate.

According to Michael and Sophie Coe’s book The True History of Chocolate, for most of its history chocolate was a drink. The Maya were the first to grow cacao millennia ago, drinking it hot or cold and blended with flavors such as honey, chili, or vanilla. Chocolate came to Europe in the 16th century, where it became wildly popular in part because it was the first caffeinated beverage introduced to the continent, predating tea and coffee. The first chocolate bars didn't come around until the 19th century, when, as Deborah Cadbury writes in her book Chocolate Wars, chocolate makers in Europe devised the process of blending ground cacao beans with extra cocoa butter (the fat present in the beans), as well as sugar, dairy, and other ingredients.

The process of making high-quality chocolate continues to be innovated today. Mental_floss spoke with Rhonda Kave of Roni-Sue’s Chocolates, Peter Gray of Raaka Chocolate, and Andrew Black of MAST Chocolate—three New York-based bean-to-bar chocolate makers—for their insights into this ancient confection.

1. KNOWING WHERE CACAO BEANS COME FROM IS IMPORTANT.

Most mass-produced chocolate is made from what's known as “commodity” cacao. Kave moved away from commodity cacao because she felt there wasn’t enough transparency in how the chocolate was sourced—much commodity cacao is grown on the Ivory Coast, where child labor is used. Gray feels similarly: “Bean-to-bar brings a lot of focus on to sourcing. You’re finding out where it comes from and letting the consumer know what they’re getting. For us, the most important step is sourcing.”

2. CACAO FROM DIFFERENT PLACES TASTES DIFFERENTLY—LIKE WINE.

Whereas commodity chocolate is made from beans from multiple regions that are blended to create a consistent product, being bean-to-bar—which means a company starts with unroasted cacao beans and oversees the process through to finished chocolate—entails embracing the variations in single-origin cacao beans. Not only do beans grown in different areas taste differently, but cacao harvests from the same farm can taste different during different seasons. Terroir, or the qualities of the place where chocolate is grown, can affect acidity, fat content, aromatics, and more.

“Where the region is, what grows around it, the nutrients in the soil … that all determines what the cacao tastes like,” Black explains. For example, he says the cacao that MAST sources from Madagascar tends to be really fruity and acidic, with a taste like fresh berries, while their beans from Tanzania are more earthy, toasty, and nutty, and have a higher fat content.

3. THERE WERE THREE MAJOR VARIETIES OF CACAO—BUT THAT’S CHANGING.

Generally speaking, there are only three varieties of cacao—criollo, forastero, and trinitario. (Most of the world’s production is made from forastero.)

“But that’s kinda all blown up with genetic profiling,” Kave says, pointing to the work being done by the Heirloom Cacao Preservation Fund. “What they’re doing is going out into the field in all the various cacao-growing regions of the world, getting samples of cacao people find pleasing, or have an interesting flavor, and then genotyping the trees.” The group hopes to understand each tree, so they can breed for certain qualities, or blend the chocolate in different ways. “There are a lot of different varieties of cacao now; much more subvarieties than previously thought. ... It’s kinda a cool time to be interested in cacao."

4. TWO BARS LABELED WITH THE SAME PERCENTAGE WON’T TASTE THE SAME.

When a bar says it’s 60% or 80%, the percentage refers to the amount of cacao solids in the bar. In general, a bar with a higher percentage is more chocolatey, but can also be more bitter. But two bars with the same percentage won’t taste the same: Not only do beans from different areas taste unique, but the remaining percentage can be made up of any combination of sugar, dairy, emulsifiers, and other ingredients. Kave mentioned a 60% from Brazil that uses goat’s milk and tastes vastly different from any other 60% bar on the market.

5. INSPIRATION COMES FROM INGREDIENTS.

Kave is known for the bold flavors of her truffles, which include pomegranate, sour cherry, key lime pie, pear-walnut-gorgonzola, pickle, and many more. Kave says, “I love to go to different markets and different shops, like Kalustyan’s on Lexington Avenue.” Kalustyan's is known to New Yorkers as an ingredients-focused store with an enormous spice selection, a huge offering of exotic imported foods, and even fresh produce like hatch chilies and makrut limes. “I can go in there and go ‘what the hell is this? I need to learn how to make something from this.’”

Raaka offers pink sea salt, ghost pepper, and smoked chai tea chocolate bars. Their motto is “Be as innovative as possible.” They’ve started a club called “First Nibs.” Every month, subscribers get two flavors that “are a little wild and experimental,” according to Gray—like porcini mushroom or pine needles.

MAST, meanwhile, has a six-bar herb collection (with flavors like bay laurel, lemongrass, and sage) that Black says is inspired by springtime trips to the greenmarket, as well as a “fruity, savory” olive oil bar. But Black notes that adding flavors to chocolate can be tricky, since cacao has a strong taste on its own: “Sometimes you’ll add a flavor in there that you think may work well, but you can’t even taste it because the chocolate is too overpowering.”

6. STORE YOUR CHOCOLATE DRY—IF YOU’RE STORING IT AT ALL.

“You should always store your chocolate at room temperature,” Black notes. If you put it in the fridge, condensation can develop, and “water is the enemy of chocolate.”

Gray agrees. “It’s good to store between 55-70 degrees. But I’m always baffled by people who don’t eat it within a couple days ... at the most.”

7. YOU SHOULD EAT CHOCOLATE BECAUSE IT’S BIGGER THAN YOU.

Gray feels an almost spiritual connection with chocolate. “It’s something that’s been consumed for 3000 years. The consumption of chocolate has outlasted most cultures and societies and empires. It’s bigger than me. It’s rare that there’s something that’s good for your body, mind, and soul—and I think chocolate is that.”

Kave feels that “Craft chocolate makers now are doing really exciting and innovative work, and I love to see that ... It’s almost like a rediscovery.”

8. EVEN YOU CAN LEARN TO MAKE CHOCOLATE.

Roni-Sue’s, Raaka, and MAST all offer opportunities to learn about chocolate-making. Kave always starts her classes off with a chocolate tasting, while MAST offers tours that include tempering and wrapping your own chocolate. Raaka, meanwhile, will be launching classes on bean-to-bar chocolate-making in January 2017. Both Roni-Sue’s and Raaka also offer occasional chocolate-focused trips to cacao-growing regions; visit their websites for details.

With additional reporting by Bess Lovejoy.

All photos via iStock.

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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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