It’s my dream someday to live an entire summer on foraged food, and in many cases that will mean giving up some of my favorite treats and comfort foods. While there are many foraged coffee substitutes for example, none of them contain caffeine. That’s going to be a hard adjustment for me personally.
Chocolate, on the other hand, is supposed to be relatively easy to make from green seed pods of the linden tree. Once they’re fully ripe, they become hard and bitter, and are more commonly roasted and used as a coffee substitute. In the summer months, when they’re still young and green they’re supposed to smell like chocolate, and if well blended and lightly sweetened, all the sources I can find say they’re the best chocolate substitute available. Or so they say…
I’m obviously not the first person to be interested in a local chocolate substitute for those of us living in temperate climates. Historically, there is an account in Edible Wild Plants of Eastern North America that talks about Fredrick the Great (in 1658) hiring chemists to try to mass produce linden chocolate to corner the market on a local chocolate substitute. Over and over they found the taste to be excellent, but couldn’t find a way to make it keep. The compounds that flavor linden chocolate are volatile, and degrade after 24 hours once the linen seeds are ground.
Edible Wild Plants of Eastern North America doesn’t cite their sources, and I haven’t found any other source to backup the claim that it was a historically important potential chocolate substitute. While the internet repeats that linden chocolate is delicious, every single article sites the same book. I cant find anyone that’s actually tried to make it. When the internet makes claims, and every single one sites the same source without actually trying it, I become skeptical.
Every recipe I’ve found has you take 5 parts green linden seeds, 1 part dried linden flowers and a small amount of neutral oil (such as grape seed) and thoroughly pulverize it all in a food processor. The linden flowers are only available fresh early in the season, so you’ll need to plan ahead and save some, or buy them in bulk online.
Sources say that the idea to make chocolate out of linden seed pods comes from the smell of the pods themselves. They’re supposed to have an intoxicating chocolate aroma. Ok then, step one: Smell the fresh pods. Answer: definite nope.
The pods don’t really smell like anything. A little woodsy perhaps, a bit green like grass or bark, but no strong aroma of any sort.
Step two: When bitten they taste just like chocolate, thus all you really need to do is mash them up and you’re all set. With that in mind I was expecting that the linden fruit would be a bit like a berry, soft and spongy on the inside with perhaps little seeds. It’s firm on the outside, but none the less I gave it a bite.
My teeth scraped off a thin layer of green pulp from the outside, that tasted a bit like grass with a lot of unpleasant astringency. The seed was so hard that I could not get my teeth through it. This is not looking promising, but still, I press on.
Sources say that they can be mashed up easily by a mortar and pestle, and that the resulting pulp is basically chocolate mash. After quite a while beating at them, I’ve only managed to scrape off the exterior pulp a bit, and even with blunt force, the seeds themselves are not opening. Moving on to the next step, trying a food processor.
After a full 5 minutes in the food processor, the motor was beginning to smoke a bit, but I didn’t have anything resembling a mash. I’d finally gotten a few of the seeds to open, which is an improvement I suppose. I cannot think of a way to process this into a mash short of some sort of industrial grinder.
Ok then, perhaps I’m missing something. There’s a green pulp on the outside, then a layer of hard shell just below. One of the cracked open seeds had a small meat inside. I tried the seed meat, and I was able to hold the foul tasting thing in my mouth for about 15 seconds. It was astringent, much more so than the outside seed coat. No hint of pleasant anything and definitely not chocolate.
For science, I tried the hard empty seed coat as well. That tasted like cardboard, without much other flavor. Which to be honest, was a relief after the seed meat.
So where does this linden chocolate story come from? It’s hard to say really. Edible Wild Plants of Eastern North America was published in 1948 and does not cite any sources. For linden, it says:
“It has long been known in Europe, where it was first discovered by a French chemist, Missa, that the fruits of the linden ground with some flowers furnish a paste which in texture and taste “perfectly” resembles chocolate. Various attempts have been made in Europe to produce this chocolate-substitute on a commercial scale but, owing to the liability of the paste to decomposition, all have proved impracticable. The most conspicuous case was at the time of Fredrick the Great, when that monarch engaged a German chemist to check the work of Missa. The results were entirely satisfactory but, as above stated, it was found that the new chocolate would not keep. On this Ventenat [a distinguished french botanist at the time] remarks, that, if the subject had been pursued a little further, and the fruits of the American species of lindens taken, the success would probably have been complete.“
So there’s a clue. Chemists at the time believed for some reason that there were subtle differences in the linden found in America, and that North American linden trees could produce a delicious shelf stable chocolate. My backyard science shows otherwise. North American linden seeds are disgusting.
I am still willing to believe, based on the astringency, that the fully mature seeds might make a decent coffee substitute. I’ll have to harvest more in the fall and give it a go.
If the linden chocolate story is true, it is only true for some species of European linden that must be substantially different. I have found no modern references to verify it. Thus, a challenge to you my readers: if any of you have access to European linden seeds, give it a try. I’d love to hear your results.