So your one true love gave you a 3-pound, heart-shaped box of chocolates for Valentine’s Day.
Ever since, you’ve been trying hard to pace yourself but have continually given in to the siren call of one of the world’s most heavily consumed guilty pleasures. If you haven’t already polished off the whole thing, pick up a piece and examine the smooth exterior.
Enjoy that indescribably delicious aroma. Now try to appreciate that the sweet morsel you’re holding started out as a tropical bean which, in ancient times, was ground and mixed with hot pepper, cornmeal and musk and drunk as a foamy bitter beverage. Yum, yum.
Chocolate is made from cocoa, which is derived from the beans of the cacoa (kah-KOW) tree of Mesoamerica, the region we now know as Central America. The Mayans were the first known peoples to have consumed cocoa, and their term “cacao” — and later “cocoa” — comes from the word cacahuaquchtl, designating the cacao tree, the tree of the Mayan gods.
The Aztecs learned to love cocoa from the Mayans, and the word “chocolate” comes from the Aztec spicy, blood-red drink known as tchocoatl, meaning “bitter water.”
Cacao trees were cultivated at least 3,000 years ago, and in both Mayan and Aztec cultures the beans of this tree were important as food and as money. When Aztecs conquered enemies, for example, they demanded payment in cocoa.
A slave cost around 1,000 cacao beans, and a tomato set you back one bean. Cacao was also thought to be an aphrodisiac and to bring good fortune, health and strength.
Europeans first discovered cacao in what is today Nicaragua, during the fourth voyage of Columbus in 1502. And even though the explorers couldn’t choke down the acrid native cocoa drinks, they took some beans back to Spain, where the locals only shrugged. What were they supposed to do with something so bitter?
After Cortez landed in Mexico and was showered with valuable cacao beans instead of gold, he taught a few monks back in Spain how to roast and grind the exotic food and prepare it as a foamy drink. The monks added a little something extra to the mix, cane sugar and voilà, the first sweet chocolate was born.
During this time, cacao was prepared by native New World peoples who manually harvested, fermented, dried, cleaned and roasted the seeds. The Spanish made one change in the process by inventing the molinillo, a wood stirring stick that made the job of whipping chocolate into a smooth foam much easier.
For a century after, the Spanish kept the bean’s origin and preparation a secret and held a monopoly over the cacao trade.
Jews expelled from Spain took their chocolate-making expertise to Bayonne, France, where the manufacture of the “barbarous” product was forbidden and relegated to the suburbs.
A couple of French queens of Spanish descent ended chocolate’s degradation, with Anne of Austria making chocolate a drink of the French court, and allowing consumption only by members of the aristocracy. Then there was a later French queen, the Infanta Marie Thérèse, who downed so much chocolate that she lost her teeth.
In the late 1600s, Sir Hans Sloane of England started mixing the already popular sweet chocolate drink with milk, and the first chocolate house open to the public was founded in 1657. Europeans who could afford the luxury of drinking chocolate spent fortunes on vessels to hold their drinks, and these dishes and cups became symbols of wealth.
America’s first chocolate factory was opened in 1765 in Dorchester, Mass., by James Baker (and we’re all familiar with Baker’s chocolate).
Before the Industrial Revolution, chocolate was a grainy, oily paste and drunk mixed in water or milk. But with the rise of new machinery came innovations that created solid chocolate and mass-production that most folks could afford.
One of the greatest innovations came in 1828, when chocolate as a candy came into fashion after Conrad van Houten of Amsterdam developed a screw press that removed most of the cocoa butter from the bean.
The result of Conrad’s innovation was cocoa powder and a butter that could be added to ordinary ground cocoa beans to make a smooth paste that was tolerant of added sugar.
The English firm of Fry and Sons introduced the first “eating chocolate” in 1847. In 1875, Daniel Peter and Henri Nestlé created a milk chocolate bar, and by 1907, Milton Hershey’s factory was spitting out 33 million kisses per day.
Today, cocoa trees grow in tropical regions of Africa, Asia, South America and Central America, and more than 3 billion tons of cacao supplies the $35 billion chocolate industry. And while we Americans eat 11.7 pounds of chocolate a year, the Swiss get the prize for the highest consumption, with about 24 pounds per person.
Guess we have lots of catching up to do. So don’t feel guilty about that Valentine’s box of candy. Just think of how far we lag behind the Swiss, and consider eating it all your patriotic duty.
Cynthia LeJeune Nobles is a member of the Newcomb College Culinary History Writers Group and the author of LSU Press’s title “The Delta Queen Cookbook.” You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.