Chocolate is the food of the aristocracy, children, soldiers and lovers. Once heralded as a cure-all, advertisers now market it as a "sinful delight." It definitely lives up to its Greek botanical name -- theobroma cacao -- "food of the gods."
According to Toltec and Aztec myth, the feathered serpent god Quetzalcoatl first brought the cocoa seeds down from heaven and taught humans how to grow cocoa trees. The Aztec drank it on ceremonial occasions calling it cacahuatl -- foam water -- they mixed it with grounded hot peppers and poured the thick drink from one vessel to another till it foamed. Aristocratic couples would share a drink during their marriage ceremony. The difficult-to-grow cocoa beans were so prized they were used as currency, like gold was in Europe.
At Aztec court, Cortez drank the beverage in a golden goblet. Before the Spanish could cultivate vineyards in the New World, they took over cocoa plantations. The new arrivals to Mexico began to mix sugar and vanilla with chocolate so it was no longer a bitter spicy drink. The Spanish soldiers would stay alert longer and fight better drinking chocolate and it wasn't intoxicating like alcohol. In Spain, doctors praised it as a beneficial drink with medicinal properties. They used it to treat sore throats, fevers and to ease difficult pregnancies. Priests and nuns drank chocolate during fasts. Monasteries were in charge of growing cocoa and for almost 100 years the Spanish guarded the secret of chocolate.
No one knows who was responsible for leaking the secret. It could have been Antonia Carletti, an Italian traveler, who might have discovered chocolate and spread the word to the rest of Europe. Other sources credit Spanish-born Princess Anna of Austria who married the King of France, Louise XIII. Soon the French started Chocolate houses and clubs and they sprang up all over Europe. Madame Du Berry in France served it to her various lovers to keep their strength up. Europeans treasured chocolate as a special treat, an aphrodisiac as well as cure for all ailments.
Many countries contributed to the art, science and technology of chocolate. A Dutch chemist, Coenraad Johannes Van Houten, discovered a way to extract cocoa oil and produce chocolate powder cheaply, making it available to almost everyone including children. Daniel Peter in Switzerland mixed cocoa with condensed milk creating milk chocolate in 1876. Manufacturers used steam engine to grind cocoa beans and chocolate. Chocolate factories sprouted up, producing chocolate bars with added ingredients like raisins and nuts.
The birth of the chocolate bar
In 1674, people started eating chocolate in stick solid form but mass production was not possible. A small group of Quakers took over chocolate production in the nineteenth century England. They saw chocolate as a healthy non-alcoholic drink and food for the lower classes. Fry and Sons mass-produced eating, solid chocolate bars in 1847.
Since the American Civil War, chocolate has feed armies. Hershey's supplied the American army with chocolate bars as part of their rations. The bars provided soldiers with fast, portable energy.
Chocolate is for lovers
In Europe, chocolate obtained the reputation as an aphrodisiac and the food of love, shortly after its arrival. Manufacturers and artists can mould chocolates in an endless variety of shapes. They are treats for almost every holiday, but chocolate has special meaning for Valentine's Day. The Italians most popular chocolates are Baci -- meaning kisses -- filled with cherry and hazelnuts. They also have little messages in each silver wrapper. Italian lovers started to exchange boxes of these chocolates in the 1920s.
Chocolate is one of the most versatile and beloved foods in the world. Belgium is at the forefront of creating and marketing luxury chocolates to adults. It's a new idea with a long tradition.
Chocolate facts and fun
- The cocoa tree can grow only 20 degrees above and below the equator, in semi-darkness at a 1,300- to 2,300-foot altitude.
- The Mayan peasants revolted against a cocoa tax levy. This may have been one of the contributing factors that lead to the downfall of that civilization.
- Under the advice of their government, Swiss chocolate manufacturers store a year's stash of raw material in secret locations in the Alps.
- You should store chocolate in a dry cool place.
- Avoid using sweet chocolate in cooking, as it won't give enough of a chocolate taste.
- Manufacturers make white chocolate from cocoa butter, rather than the beans. Therefore it is not, technically speaking, chocolate.
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