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The sound of the word 'chocolate' in any language is alluring and seductive. Its taste is delicious and rich, and satisfies a craving for comfort.
Chocolatier, artist and sculptor in chocolate Asher Toubkin associates the primeval love of chocolate with the fact that it is perhaps the first treat a child is offered by his mother in childhood.
Yet we don't have the same reaction to carrots or even cookies.
This product of the cacao tree has been gathering addicts since the Aztec leader Montezuma introduced the beverage to the Spanish conqueror Cortez. To counteract its original bitterness, the Spanish used sugar instead of chilis and added cinnamon and vanilla. But it was only in the 1800s that techniques were developed to transform the cacao product into chocolate bars or non-liquid shapes.
Nowadays, it is difficult to find anyone who does not enjoy chocolate. Even weight watchers will spend some of their calorie points on this sweet if it is good quality. At a recent synagogue party, where Toubkin provided the dessert, the most disciplined of congregants could not resist the truffles, even while adding artificial sweetener to their coffee.
Toubkin established his business 'Sweet San' after years of training. Aged 30, he was born in the UK and came as a small child with his family to live in Haifa. He worked his way up in the restaurant business while still at school, working first as a pot-washer, preparing salads and finally in charge of the grill. When he was 13, he nearly burned down his mother's kitchen making liquorices, but nothing deterred him from his dream of becoming a chef.
After completing his military service, Toubkin worked in a prestigious fish restaurant in Barcelona. From there he moved to London and worked at the Hyatt Hotel, where he had to compete with the best of the foreign chefs. He was promoted to head The Rib Room, which won an award for the best meat restaurant of 1999.
While one often associates hotel restaurants with mediocre food, Toubkin explained that in London, the opposite is true. "These hotels are attracting the very best of chefs and the most innovative food choices," he says.
Eventually, he changed direction and started on the lowest rung again to learn to be a pastry chef. He worked at the Great Eastern Hotel in London and learned from Robert Petrey, the champion prizewinner in 'fusion desserts,' a combination of Western recipes with Eastern ingredients.
He then became head pastry chef at Hakkasan, the London restaurant awarded by Michelin as the best Chinese restaurant in the world. The Chinese workers in the kitchens spoke no English, so Toubkin taught them Hebrew and this became the working language in this Chinese restaurant in the heart of London.
After a period in Australia where he started sculpting in chocolate, he moved to France where he participated in a unique chocolate sculpting course in Paris, a program where only eight students work for five intensive days, learning and experimenting in chocolate art.
Just over two years ago, Toubkin headed home to Israel. He could see the potential for producing hand-made chocolates for both the domestic market and for export. He is influenced by his research on Japanese desserts, and has adopted this philosophy of aesthetics, simplicity and freshness.
Toubkin calls his business Sweet San, San being the Japanese for 'Mr.'
He takes orders for home catering and creates personalized chocolates for special occasions, provides desserts for cafes and restaurants, and has a stand in malls in Ramat Aviv, Ra'anana and Haifa.
Apart from dark, milk and white chocolate creations, other desserts combine chocolate with dried fruits and nuts. Each recipe is created by Toubkin, and it has taken him five years to put together his repertoire. "My best creative time is alone in my kitchen in the middle of the night," says Toubkin, who is now working on a recipe for chocolate suitable for diabetics.
"The focus is on taste and quality. While it is now known that high-percentage cocoa chocolates are the healthiest, the percentage is no indication of quality," he notes, explaining that he uses the superior Caribean cocoas, Trinidada and Creola.
He came fourth with his chocolate sculptures as Israel's representative at the 2006 World Championship in Paris, and is determined to place first next time. "Before I participated in that course in Paris, I had worked with chocolate for four years and thought I knew everything about it, but that experience opened a new world in the art of chocolate creation," he says.
While chocoholics are concerned about the high fat content of chocolate and damage to teeth - and an unfortunate few are allergic - there is emerging evidence that chocolate is actually healthy and beneficial to long-term coronary health.
Chocolate stimulates the secretion of endorphins, which in turn produces a 'high' similar to that after physical exercise or dancing. It also contains a neurotransmitter called serotonin that acts as an anti-depressant.
The myth of tooth decay has been dispelled by researchers at the Eastman Dental Center in Rochester in New York, who concluded that as milk chocolate contains phosphate and other minerals, it actually offsets the damage from the sugar. While most sweets and candy provide empty calories, chocolate is actually nutritious with a high level of potassium, magnesium and vitamins B1, B2, D and E.
And in recent months, evidence is growing to show that chocolate can compete with vegetables and fruits - in particular onions, cranberries, apples and persimmons - as well as green and black tea in providing antioxidants and flavonoids that protect the heart, improve blood circulation and increase the 'good' HDL cholesterol.
Though high in fat, cocoa butter contains oleic acid (a healthy monounsaturated fat also found in olive oil). However, there are equal amounts of stearic and palmitic acids. There is controversy as to whether stearic acid alone is harmful, beneficial or neutral, while palmitic acid is a form of saturated fat that increases 'bad' LDL cholesterol.
The harmful or unhealthy fat content of most desserts is not from the chocolate itself, particularly the dark type, rather from the additional ingredients such as caramel and marshmallow.
In a study reported by Penny Kris-Etherton, a dietician at Pennsylvania State University, a group of people ate 22 grams of cocoa powder and 16 grams of dark chocolate every day. The results demonstrated that the antioxidants may increase 'good' cholesterol levels by as much as 10 percent, while the 'bad' LDL was less susceptible to oxidation, a process that can lead to artery-clogging.
Women - particularly when premenstrual - seem to crave chocolate more than men. But is it addiction or because of the taboo?
Debra Zellner, a psychologist at Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania studied groups of women in the US and in Spain. "American women have turned chocolate into a nutritional taboo - delicious but sinful. They try not to eat it then fall off the wagon particularly at times of stress when they might be feeling low."
Spanish women did not have this same perception of chocolate as sinful and did not appear to suffer the same cravings.
Debra Waterhouse, a dietician and author of 'Why Women Need Chocolate,' thinks it is a combination of culture and chemicals. Prof. Doug Taren, nutritionist at the University of Arizona in Tucson and co-author of a review of 75 research papers in the October 1999 Journal of the American Dietetic Association, concluded that chocolate satisfies emotional and sensory needs and also counteracts with hormone cycles and chemical components, particularly for women.
While all these studies do not suggest gorging on chocolate as the main daily diet, they do suggest that in moderation, chocolate may have health benefits. And that is the crunch. Chocolate is addictive, and it is almost impossible to eat only one piece.
Once a bar or box is opened, it disappears very quickly, as was proved when this writer came home from the interview with Asher Toubkin and showed her husband the beautifully wrapped gift-box of chocolates he had given her.