Monday, 18 April 2011

Easter: bring on the marshmallow and chocolate.

Two plants that feature in any secular celebration of Easter are Althea officinalis (marsh mallow) and Theobroma cacao (cocoa).  Before Christianity commandeered it, Easter was a celebration of the (northern) spring, renewal of growth and new birth in the plant and animal worlds.  For a more biblical account of Easter plants, I recommend Hepper's Planting a bible garden (reference below).
A weedy wild mallow (Malva sp.)
photographed in Italy
Mallows are often weedy plants, mostly in the genus Malva (pictured), which gives its name to the family Malvaceae (native members are lacebark, Hoheria, and ribbonwood, Plagianthus).  Hollyhocks and Lavatera are ornamentals in the same family.  The original marsh mallow, Althea officinalis, is called that because it grows in swampy sites in Europe.  Its roots produce a sticky juice that can be used to bind a beaten egg and sugar mix.  Modern marshmallows are made with gelatin in place of marsh mallow root.  The protein in the gelatin holds the whipped bubbles together, producing the sweet fluff that fills an Easter egg.
Theobroma cacao (the genus name means food of the gods) is a tropical tree.  McGee (reference below) has 18 pages on chocolate.  Theobroma fruits are ovoid pods that contain large seeds, the cocoa beans.  These beans must first be fermented carefully in the sugar-rich pulp that surrounds them in the pod.  A series of physical and chemical changes during fermentation reduces the bitterness of the beans and breaks down complex chemicals into simple sugars and a rich array of flavours.  The beans are then dried and roasted.  After roasting, flavours are adjusted by the addition of sugar, vanilla, milk solids, and cocoa butter.  Chocolate should melt evenly into a creamy texture that can solidify again on the outside of an Easter egg. 
Hepper, F.N. 1997.  Planting a bible garden.  Revell.
McGee, H. 2004.  On food and cooking. Scribner.

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