Chocolate – May the Gods be With You

The History of Chocolate
Originally cacao trees were native to the tropical rain forests of South America. The ancient societies who held sway here during the 1st to 16th Centuries considered the beans of the cacao tree so precious that they used them as currency, as well as making them into a sacred drink, latterly known as xocoatl. Depending on the rate at the time, an egg cost between one and three beans, a rabbit cost between four and 10 beans, and a slave as much as 100 beans, so to actually grind the beans and make the xocoatl was something only the rich and powerful could afford to do. And it was what the beans contain naturally that was so important: the stress-relieving, feel-good chemicals, phenylethylamine, alongside the ‘energy rush’ of the theobromine and caffeine, gave rise to the belief that it gave those that drank it ‘special’ (ie intellectual and sexual) strength.

To be honest, Xocoatl was not much like drinking chocolate as we know it. For a start it was bitter (cacao beans are, naturally, and no sugar was added) and gritty (the grinding process was very primitive), and it was very spicy, with such ingredients as musk, vanilla, pepper, maize, pimento, chilli, and cinnamon, added to the drink – the number of different ingredients increased with the status of the person drinking it. Before serving, the cocoa mass and water had to be whipped into a froth to stop the cocoa separating.

Montezuma II, emperor of the Aztecs, didn’t drink anything but the frothy, spicy xocoatl, which was served to him in a golden goblet from which he ate it with a golden spoon. It is said that at least 50 pitchers of it were prepared for the emperor each day, and a further 2000 for the rest of the court. It must have tasted very bizarre to those unfamiliar with it, and indeed Christopher Columbus couldn’t help spitting it out at the first taste! Later, however, the Spanish conquistador, Herman Cortes, quickly came to realise the cacao bean’s special properties as a tonic, and in a land where wine, the mainstay of an army, was restricted if not non-existent, chocolate came to take its place, albeit often sweetened with honey to make it more palatable. As Cortes noted…“just one cup was enough to refresh a soldier for the whole day.”

By the mid 16th century, chocolate drinking in the afternoon salons of well-to-do Spanish ladies, who were excited by the idea that it increased desire and fertility, had become de rigeour, to the point where the creation of beautiful copper and silver chocolate pots was a thriving industry. These were shaped like a bulb towards the base and designed with a spout and handle, plus a hole in the lid through which a whisk could be inserted so that the chocolate could be easily whipped before being poured into exquisite porcelain cups and saucers. The chilli, musk, maise and pimento had been lost from the mix, although the vanilla and cinnamon were retained, and each lady added her own sugar and milk to counteract the bitterness.

However, the chocolate drink still remained a far cry from the hot, smooth, and mouth-rich beverage we know today. This started to change by the end of the century, however, when Sir Hans Sloane, eminent collector and physician and after whom Sloane Square is named, invented ‘hot chocolate’ while collecting plant species in Jamaica. In the Caribbean the locals liked to drink cocoa in the traditional manner, mixed with cold water. Sloane found this nauseating, but he regarded chocolate as an important tonic and so mixed the cocoa powder with hot milk to make it more palatable. He liked the result so much that he bought the recipe back with him to England and started to prescribe it to his patients… and thus changed the way we drink chocolate forever.

By the end of the 19th century, British manufacturers, especially Quaker families, such as the Fry family and the Cadbury brothers, had further refined and developed chocolate for British tastes, creating such well-known brands as Dairy Milk. Chocolate was here to stay, and in all parts of society. Children for example, were routinely given ‘hot chocolate’ at bedtime despite the caffeine content, while by the mid 20th century, children’s adventure stories, such as Enid Blyton’s ‘Famous Five’ series, weren’t complete without the obligatory chocolate bar tucked in the pocket!

The UK has always had a thriving chocolate tradition, not just the mass market appeal of Cadburys and Fry’s (now owned by Cadbury’s), but also specialist and artisan producers ranging from the long-established, such as Bendick’s and Charbonnel et Walker, through organic Green and Black (now owned by Cadbury’s – see www.greenandblacks.com) and the ever-popular Thornton’s. There is also a strong tradition of artisan chocolatiers in the UK, such as Brighton’s Choccywoccydoodah, Aphrodite Chocolates in Essex, Browne’s chocolates in Devon, and London’s Rococo, Amelie Chocolate and Paul A Young. France has an even stronger artisan tradition, with most towns boasting at least one specialist chocolatier, and in the 1980s the wine term ‘grand cru’ was coined by French company Valrhona, when they pioneered the use of a single couveture (ground chocolate mass) made from one type of bean from one plantation – the first ‘origin chocolatier’. This has opened the floodgate to specialist and gourmet chocolates of all sorts, such as those produced by UK gourmet ‘origin chocolatier’ Hotel Chocolate.

• Criollo (also known as the Caracas) – the original cacao tree, makes up 5% of world production as is fragile and difficult to grow. The beans are exquisite and highly aromic.

• Trinitario – cross between the other two.

As the trees are pretty delicate, the pods are fragile and easily damaged, and the yield low (each tree produces roughly 1,500 beans each harvest), production as a whole is exacting and very labour intensive. Disease can be a problem, with fungus thriving in the humidity, for example. As chemical control is too difficult for many small farmers, a bad attack can wipe out a year’s income in one go, while swings in fashion and demand can also affect the profits of smaller producers. Child slavery has commonly been used in chocolate production as a way of covering the lower profit margin, and government statistics indicate that more than 109,000 children were working on cocoa farms in Côte d’Ivoire in ‘the worst forms of child labour’ in 2002. Hardly an angelic process for this most heavenly foodstuff, and this has led to cocoa and chocolate being available as ‘fair trade’ items in some countries, including the UK, although Fair Trade chocolate (www.fairtrade.org.uk) still only represents a tiny percentage of the total trade.

So choose your favourite chocolate. Take a bite. Let it melt in your mouth … and know that the gods are with you.

© Claire Burdett. Please only reproduce this article with permission, in its entirety and with a hyperlink to www.claireburdett.com. Thank you.

First published in Citylife magazine, 2007

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  1. Art Vine says:

    Hi Claire, came across this excellent blog while researching links for our website (www.aphrodite-chocolates.co.uk), I know it’s a bit late but thank you for the mention.

    I just thought I’d add a comment on the darker side of chocolate production, the child labour/slavery issue. As always, these issues are not black & white as slavery and forced labour are mainly a problem in African cacao plantations. Whereas in South/Central America there is a tradition of family owned cacao plantations, in which the whole family (including children) are involved. OK, by our western standards this is not desirable, however it is not forced labour or slavery and the families involved would find it much harder to survive without their children’s help.

    Art Vine (Partner) Aphrodite Handmade Chocolates.

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