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A Sweet History of Chocolate

Aug 18, 2007
It starts with the cacao tree, which is about as far away from a Hershey bar as you can get. It is a small evergreen tree native to the deep tropical regions of South America, ranging from far southern Mexico to the Amazon. You pick a big, green, almond-shaped melon off of this tree and split it open. If you are lucky enough to have found one of the five in one hundred cacao tree pods to produce cacao beans, you find about twenty to forty of them inside.

These beans don't taste even remotely like chocolate at this point. They have to be washed, laid out in the sun to ferment and harden, dried, and shipped off to be cooked, ground, and processed before they can even be used as an ingredient.

The cacao bean's first use is shrouded in the legends of the tribal customs of Mesoamericans, Amazonians, and Aztecs, and decorated with rich myths involving Mayan gods and sacrifices to Quetzalcoatl. It was a food, a tonic, a gift from the volcano gods, a medicine, a shaman ritual. It is written about in the most ancient carved stone hieroglyphics on the walls of crumbing temples.

It was even used as currency. Not just a back-up currency, but the main unit of wealth amongst the native South Americans. Two hundred beans was a male turkey; one hundred beans was the daily wage of a laborer. A mere three beans bought an avocado. No less than 980 canoe-loads of the cacao bean were the annual demanded tribute of taxes collected by the Aztec empire.

None other than Christopher Columbus himself first discovered the cacao beans, though he described them as "almonds" which he at first mistook for rabbit droppings. Columbus captured a canoe filled with these artifacts, but the crew dumped it out as worthless garbage. The Spanish explorer Cortez was the first to knowingly encounter cacao, which was consumed by the natives as a drink during Cortez's meetings with Montezuma.

Cortez was the first white human to get a sip of the tasty concoction, and even he only got that lucky through being mistaken for a white prophet prophesied by their legends. This time cacao beans made it back to Europe, introduced to the royal court of Spain in 1544. Chocolate had at last been introduced to the New World.

It spread like wildfire across all of Europe within a century, being used for everything from the basis of liqueur to a medicinal tincture. As a beverage, chocolate was consumed in a bitter, spicy drink called "xocoatl", flavored with vanilla, which you would expect, and also flavored with chile pepper and annatto, which is alarming. It was believed to be a stimulant, and hence used to fight fatigue. This is now known to be from the compound theobromine, which is like caffeine and is found in chocolate.

Other drink combinations involved a maize paste, assorted fruits, and honey. Coming up to 1689, the physician Mans Sloane developed a chocolate drink which was originally intended for apothecary use, but the recipe for it was eventually bought by the Cadbury brothers. The first modern commercial interest in chocolate began.

In the scheme of things today, two thirds of the cacao bean harvest comes from Ghana, the Ivory Coast and other counties along the African equator. Cacao is also cultivated in the rain forests of Mexico, Brazil, Costa Rica, and other parts of Central and South America, as well as the Southeast Asian countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia. The manufacturing of chocolate occurs mostly in countries such as Switzerland, France, Belgium, Italy, England and the United States.

A percentage of about 70% cacao beans is considered necessary to call candy "chocolate", although there's no accounting for chocolate flavoring, cocoa extract, and artificial flavoring. The cheapest chocolate candy commonly sold in the United States bears about as much resemblance to cacao-based chocolate as it does to car wax, being mostly sugar and fat. Milk chocolate usually contains up to 50% cacao.

White chocolate contains only about 33% cacao. The mass-produced chocolate contains much less cacao - as low as 7% in many cases - and are made with fats other than cocoa butter. Currently, mass-manufacturers such as Hershey and Nestle are lobbying the United States congress to remove the restriction against calling something with no cacao content "chocolate". That 7% is just killing them!

Other chocolate manufacturers in Europe boast up to 88% cacao bean content, and one hard-core Swiss chocolate and confectionery company founded in 1845, name of Lindt, boasts a bar that is 99% pure. The Lindt chocolate is an interesting experience, best taken in very small quantities rather than in fistfuls like the average candy binger. It really separates the true chocolate gourmand from the casual sugar-craver, as it is actually quite bitter and strong.

But what, you didn't think there was just one kind of bean, did you? Oh, no, wine snobs know their grapes, coffee addicts know their beans, and as a chocolate fancier, you'll never get anywhere without knowing your cacao. The three main cultivated varieties are Criollo, Forastero and Trinitario.

Criollo is the rarest and most expensive cacao, native to Central America and the Caribbean islands. Forastero is the wild and cultivated cacaos which are native to the Amazon basin, but can be cultivated in places like Africa. Trinitario is just a natural hybrid of the other two varieties.

Nearly 95% of the chocolate you find in the world is of the Forastero variety, so seeking out the other will be quite a hunt. Cacao is naturally hard to cultivate; it grows only in a narrow band limited to twenty degrees north or south of the equator. A single night of below-sixty degree temperatures kills a cacao tree.

To settle an old dispute: yes, eating chocolate really does feel like falling in love. The consumption of a chocolate piece releases both dopamine and serotonin in the brain, the exact same two chemicals which the body rewards the brain with during passionate love. This is a marked effect of the chocolate itself, not the sugar and fat.
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