It’s sophisticated, silky and sublime. It’s scrumptious; it’s soothing; some say it’s downright sinful! It’s chocolate! No other “taste sensation” has caught and held America’s appetite attention quite the way the flavor of chocolate has.
After all, what could be more intriguing than something so prized that it was once used as currency for trade? Something so indulgent that it was once practically banned by the Catholic church, and so luscious that it was once considered an extraordinary “gift of paradise”, reserved only for the delight of an Aztec king?
Chocolate deserves its notoriety, because behind the rich, beguiling taste, the smooth, tantalizing texture, and the ultimate variety of ways to enjoy chocolate, you’ll find an exotic botany and an incredible history.
The botanical name for the cacao tree is “Theobroma,” which translates to “food of the gods.” The tree thrives in the hot, rainy climate of the tropics and only grows within 20° of the equator. The cacao tree originated in the Amazon and Orinoco River basins of Ecuador and Brazil, and has been cultivated by the people of Central and South America for three to four thousand years. Today, cocoa is grown in West Africa and Indonesia, as well as Brazil. The best beans are grown in the Brazilian state of Bahia and in the West African country of Cote d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast). The trees need 60” of rainfall, fertile soil, shade and temperatures above 50°F to grow. Giant pods growing from the trunks of these trees yield the precious beans from which chocolate and cocoa are made. The transformation from raw bean to finished product is as exciting as the tales that surround their discovery.
The first documented European to see cocoa beans was Christopher Columbus during his fourth voyage, when he intercepted a canoe off the coast of Yucatan in 1502. Columbus brought the first beans back to Spain and presented them to the Spanish Court. Columbus himself had not tried drinking the Aztec’s unappealing concoction of cocoa, cinnamon, cornmeal and aniseed, and was most likely not surprised when Ferdinand and Isabella rejected the drink as well.
It wasn’t until 1519, when the conquistador Hernan Cortes wrote to the Spanish Crown that he had discovered a miracle beverage, “a cup of it gives every soldier the strength to march for an entire day”, that importance by Europeans was given to this “Food of the Gods”. The Aztecs called it xocolatl which translates to: bitter water (xoc = bitter; atle = water). The Aztecs had no sugar so the final brew was not only bitter, but also heavy and difficult to digest because it was about 50% fat.
The Aztecs, however, lived too far north to grow Cacao, but procured it through trade or ransom with southern tribes. Cortes records a typical “tribute” brought to the court of Montezuma by their conquered southern neighbors as “20 chests of ground chocolate, 80 loads of red chocolate, 800 Xicaras (drinking bowls for chocolate), 200 loads of chocolate, 20 bags of gold dust, and 20 lip jewels of clear amber, ornamented with gold”.
Cortes discovered the value of xocolatl at Montezuma’s court, where Cortes was the guest of honor at a splendid welcoming reception. Over three hundred items were prepared to feast upon and there were thousands of jugs of xocolatl served in amazing pure gold goblets. After the event, Montezuma is said to have prepared himself to join his harem by indulging in xocolatl. Xocolatl was the drink of royalty and usually served only to Montezuma and his male court members. Xocolatl was considered to have aphrodisiac properties and was thus used at wedding ceremonies and as a courtly nuptial aid. So revered was xocolatl, that the golden bowls used to serve it were used only once and then thrown into Lake Tezcoco. After the conquest of the Aztecs, the Spanish drained Lake Tezcoco to retrieve a vast treasure of gold cups that lay on its bottom.
Cortes brought the valuable secret of xocolatl back to Spain, improving the recipe with the addition of sugar from the East Indies and vanilla from Mexico. To make xocolatl, the royal court would grind the Cacao beans into a semi-liquid paste, mix it with spices, and harden it into small cakes. The cakes were then dissolved in hot water and frothed with a tool called a “molinet”.
The Spanish court held the secret of chocolate for almost 100 years, reserving the beverage for royalty. When the secret of chocolate finally leaked out, “chocolate houses” began to appear throughout Europe, serving the wealthy this popular cocoa brew. The drink grew to be so socially desired, in fact, that at one time the Catholic Church had to forbid “cocoa-addicted” parishioners from bringing cups full of the beverage to Sunday mass.
Chocolate did not become a “common” drink until the Dutch developed a method to remove most of the fat, or cocoa butter, by mechanical pressure, and smooth the cocoa’s sharp flavor by “Dutching”. Cocoa butter from the de-fatted bean was a waste product until Cadbury of England developed the first “hand held” chocolate by adding extra cocoa butter to the chocolate and hardening it to make the first chocolate bar. The evolution of the modern chocolate bar continued when two Swiss men, Daniel Peters & Henri Nestle’, added milk to make the first milk chocolate in 1875. Another Swiss, Rodolphe Lindt, developed a process called “conching” in 1879 to make the first really fine chocolate.
Ever since Cortes helped introduce cocoa to the Old World, Europeans have revered chocolate as a gourmet treat. After the Boston Tea Party, cocoa beverages became an American alternative to tea drinking and the incredible increase of consumer demand for high-quality cocoa and chocolate products was born. Today, there appears to be a recognized “chocolate craze” that has spread around the world.
Romantic, exotic, sensational! From Montezuma’s closely guarded, bitter beverage to today’s incredible variety of products, chocolate remains in the realm of inspired tastes that transcend the ordinary… fitting tribute for a Food of the Gods!