Easter is a time when even people who do not consider themselves “choco-holics” can usually be tempted to savour the delicious sweetness of chocolate, hidden within a glossy Easter egg wrapping. But as we melt the soft chocolate on our tongues, how many of us realise that this treat has a history dating back over 4000 years?
Food of the gods
We might say that the taste of chocolate is heavenly, but its earliest fans truly believed it was divine. In the heart of the Amazon jungle, the Mayan people worshipped the Cacao tree, believing it was divine in origin, and used cocoa beans as currency. Cocoa beans symbolised life and fertility: the most vital aspects of their lives. Even their temples and palaces were adorned with carvings of cocoa pods, and carbon-dated remains of cocoa found in burial urns indicate that cocoa was being consumed circa 2500 BC. “Cacao” is the ancient Mayan word meaning “god food”, which is why 18th century botanist Carolus Linnaeus named the species Theobroama Cacao, or “food of the gods”.
The word “chocolate” is said to derive from the Mayan word “xocoatl”, which means “bitter water”, which is how they referred to the original chocolate, an unsweetened, frothy, cold cocoa drink made from crushed cocoa beans mixed with water and possibly flavourings such as vanilla and spices (even chilli peppers) as sugar was unknown to them. Consumption of cocoa beans was restricted to leaders and society’s elite, and when “chocolate” or more correctly cocoa was prepared, it was with great ceremony, with careful attention paid to the foaming process and the addition of a delicate mix of spices, honey and flowers. In the 14th century the drink became popular amongst the Aztec upper classes, who acquired the beverage from the Mayans, and who were the first to tax the beans, which continued to be used as currency (there were even cocoa counterfeiters!). The Aztecs created a vast empire that eventually reached the Pacific coast of Guatemala, and conquered tribes had to pay tribute in cocoa beans. Aztec rulers stored beans as their treasury, and reportedly at one point had some 960 million beans in the royal coffers.
One of their many gods was Quetzalcoatl, creator god (also credited with the creation of the all-important cocoa bean) and provider of agriculture. They believed that he descended from heaven on the beam of a morning star, carrying a cocoa tree stolen from paradise. Little wonder that the Aztecs, believing that Quetzalcoatl would one day return, were awestruck on seeing Spanish Conquistador Hernando Cortez in all his armour and finery, and believed him to be their god. When Emperor Montezuma of Mexico was defeated by Cortez in 1521, the Spaniards searched the palace, hoping to find gold and silver, but all they found were stores of cocoa beans – the Aztec treasury! In 1528 Cortez brought chocolate back from Mexico to the royal court of King Charles V of Spain. He was not the first to bring cocoa beans to Europe: Christopher Columbus supposedly brought cocoa beans back to the court of King Ferdinand after his fourth visit to the New World, but the beans’ value was overlooked amongst the other lavish spoils.
A profitable trade
For nearly a century, chocolate remained the secret of the Spanish aristocracy, and was virtually unknown in the rest of Europe. The secret of making the treasured treat passed into the hands of the monks, who processed the beans and kept the process under wraps, turning the chocolate industry into a lucrative trade for Spain, which planted cocoa trees in its colonies. The Spanish began to add cane sugar to sweeten the chocolate drink, and in 1585 the first official shipment of cocoa beans arrived in Seville from Mexico. With the decline of Spain’s power, the secret of chocolate leaked out at last, and in 1606 an Italian traveller, Antonia Carletti, took chocolate to other parts of Europe. The sweetest treat was now available to all – who could afford it.
Chocolate remained an elite treat and status symbol for the next 300 years. It continued to be drunk, but was now sweetened with cinnamon, sugar and other spices. Elaborate porcelain and silver serving cups were designed to serve the costly drink, and in France, chocolate was a state monopoly that could only be consumed by the royal court. It was introduced to the country by Ann of Austria, daughter of Philip II of Spain, who married the French king, Louis the XIII.
By 1657, chocolate’s influence had spread across Europe, and London’s first chocolate shop was opened by a Frenchman. A flurry of similar “chocolate houses” opened, becoming fashionable meeting places for elite society. In 1662, the Roman Catholic Church decreed that drinking chocolate did not break the fast, but eating chocolate confections was not allowed during Lent – until Easter. Is this perhaps why we traditionally eat chocolate at Easter?
A tasty medicine
When chocolate arrived in Europe it was first regarded as a medicine, as the Aztecs has believed that chocolate aided virility and power. Bonavontura Di Aragon, brother of Cardinal Richelieu, made the first official statement about the medicinal benefits of chocolate in 1653, saying that it stimulated the healthy functioning of the spleen and other digestive organs. In the 17th and 18th centuries, chocolate was used for numerous ailments, even depression and to enhance mental performance.
In 1765 the first chocolate factory in the USA opened, just a decade after the New World first discovered the delicacy. In 1780, Spain produced the first European machine-made chocolate, followed by the opening of a factory in Berlin in 1792. By the 1800s, mass production and increased mechanisation made chocolate affordable to a far wider public. The steam engine meant that the cocoa beans could be quickly and easily ground, while later inventions like the cocoa press and conching machine heated and rolled chocolate to refine it, ensuring that smooth, creamy solid chocolate, first produced by the English company JS Fry & Sons in 1830, replaced the chocolate beverage. Improved manufacturing techniques saw “fondant chocolate”, a smooth, velvety chocolate without the original coarse-grained texture, introduced by another English company, Cadbury Brothers, in 1847. It was an instant hit. But it took many years before another milestone was reached: in 1875, after eight years of experimentation, Daniel Peter of Switzerland introduced milk chocolate to the market.
Cocoa is a slow-growing and sensitive crop that grows in the tropics. Not widely known is that chocolate is like wine, its flavour and quality subject to the influence of cocoa’s cultivars, growing season, fermentation, drying and processing. Most of the world’s crop is the bitter tasting and less flavourful Forastero cacao bean or hybrids thereof. The rare Criollo and Trinitario cultivars are prized for their superior flavour and aroma, but some commercial chocolate manufacturers are often forced, through expense and supply, to blend better quality with lesser quality beans. The blended beans are then roasted to create a uniform flavour, and to reduce the effects of fumigants and mould resulting from their long journey in ships’ holds. “Dutch-processing”, the addition of powerful alkaline chemicals, is then required to reduce bitterness, increase bulk and improve the flavour. Chocophiles or chocolate gourmands can detect fine nuances of taste and flavour, and expert chocolatiers create gourmet chocolate using techniques similar to those of winemakers.
True chocophiles have numerous terms to describe their favourite treat:
Anonymous chocolate: blended using cocoa beans from various regions and cultivars.
Compound chocolate: made primarily from artificial ingredients, chocolate flavouring and a low/non-existent percentage of genuine cocoa solids. Often sold as cooking chocolate.
Family or milk chocolate: commercial “chocolate flavoured” confectionary made with substituted plant and animal fats, oils, extenders and bulking agents.
Natural chocolate: contains no substitutions or solvent residues, artificial flavourings, or added/substituted fats and oils. It is not alkalised or subjected to Dutch Processing, and does not use irradiated beans (irradiation and fumigation of all cocoa beans is mandatory for “first-world” importers and manufacturers).
Organic chocolate: made from non-genetically-modified cultivars, grown without the use of artificial fertilisers or pesticides.
Single-cultivar: chocolate made exclusively from one of the three main cacao cultivars, with a unique taste.
Estate/single-origin: made from beans grown in a single region/area with a distinctive taste.
Vintage: quality chocolate is usually a single cultivar, and estate chocolate is made from cacao harvested during a particular growing season.
So when you open your Easter eggs, say a sincere ‘thank you’ to the thousands of people who have toiled over thousands of years to develop the unique taste of your special treat. Enjoy!
This story first appeared in The Quill newspaper (no longer in operation). Used with permission of the author and publisher.