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Overview of CACAO
Stan Denning - Sunday, January 01, 2012

Quote of the Month:


I have this theory that chocolate slows down the aging process.... It may not be true, but do I dare take the chance?




The Age of Reason: The Chocolate Enlightenment

18th Century – Part THREE

In the 18th Century, chocolate’s popularity reached all across Europe and the Americas. It was a time of upheavals in society that influenced who got to enjoy chocolate and who didn’t, and of advances in technology that made possible the first chocolate bars.


When Vienna First Waltzed with Chocolate

Chocolate was introduced to Austria when the Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI relocated from Madrid to Vienna in 1711. Vienna became famous for its hot chocolate, so rich and thick that it needed to be served with glasses of chilled water to balance out the experience.


Chocolate and the Class Struggle

Even though hot chocolate was available to many, it still remained a drink primarily for the aristocracy—not a good thing during a time when revolutions were overthrowing kings and radicals preached democracy. One reason: it was expensive. In 18th century Venice, for instance, coffee was one- third the price of chocolate. Even in the New World, chocolate had become the rich colonist’s potion, and no longer the drink of the native people. Many were too poor to afford it. Servants were given a scanty ration, and even less if the harvest was bad.

Chocolate also was considered to be the church hierarchy’s drink of choice. During the conclave of 1760 (when it took six months to elect the next Pope) the cardinals enjoyed hot chocolate coffee, when they took a break.

Hot chocolate still required constant whipping to make it rich and foamy which was hot and hard work for maids to do many times a day for their rich employers. That maids couldn’t afford the drink emphasized the class divisions. 

Chocolate was what the nobleman had for his laid-back, relaxed breakfast while coffee was for the emerging middle-class businessmen who needed a quick start first thing.


Eat Dessert First: Italy's Chocolate Recipes

Cacao was not just for hot chocolate any more. Chocolate could be had in bars and pastilles, and was found in recipes for main dishes, desserts, ices and more. Italy paved the way for cooking with chocolate. An 18th century cookbook includes dishes such as fried liver that had first been dipped in chocolate; a polenta made with almonds, butter and chocolate breadcrumbs; and a chocolate “soup” composed of milk, sugar, chocolate, cinnamon and egg yolk, served warm and poured over toast.


All for Love: Chocolate as an Aphrodisiac

Chocolate long had a reputation as an aphrodisiac, starting with the Spanish conquistadors who assumed Montezuma consumed so much to better serve his harem. 18th century medical treatises listed “promotes venery” as one of chocolate’s abilities, and chocolate was often included in recipes to cure impotence.

Casanova, the famous lover, considered it his “favorite breakfast dish.”  His memoirs reveal that he used chocolate as a bribe for the chaperones and guardians of the women he loved as much, if not more, than as a love potion.


Death by Chocolate

Poisoning used to be a popular method of doing away with your enemies. When chocolate was introduced to Europeans, one of the things they noticed was that it disguised the taste of poison.  When Pope Clement XIV died in 1774 under mysterious circumstances, it was thought by many that he had been poisoned by a cup of chocolate brought to him by his unknowing credenziere (confectioner), who supposedly died the same day.  The Pope had been terrified of assassination, especially after confronting the powerful Jesuits. An autopsy proved this was just a rumor. But like most rumors, it didn’t die easily.


Chocolate's European Debut - Part TWO

16th — 17th Centuries 

Columbus likely was the first European to discover cacao beans but it took some time before Europe discovered chocolate. Columbus saw how natives cherished the beans, but he thought they were a type of almond. Though he did bring them back to Spain with him, cacao and chocolate went unnoticed for some decades because the Spanish didn’t know what to do with them—until Cortes’ conquest of the Aztecs and Mexico.

Cortes Courts the Cacao Bean

Around 1519, Hernan Cortes arrived at the great court of the Aztec king, Montezuma. He and his crew witnessed Montezuma’s 50-cup-a-day chocolate ritual, discovered the royal storehouses brimming with beans and observed the custom of using cacao as currency.

One of the conquistadors had this to say about the power of chocolate: “This drink is the healthiest thing, and the greatest sustenance of anything you could drink in the world because he who drinks a cup of this liquid, no matter how far he walks, can go a whole day without eating anything else.”

Cortes himself didn’t take to the bitter brew, but realized its value. He wrote to King Carlos I of Spain that chocolate was a "drink that builds up resistance and fights fatigue." Cortes later became a New World land owner, with plantations in Mexico, Haiti and Trinidad. Cacao was one of the crops he raised. Legend has it that it was Cortes who first cultivated cacao in West Africa on one of his many travels between Spain and the New World.

A Sweet Trend

After the Spanish conquered the Aztecs and began building settlements in the New World, they adapted many of the dining habits of the natives, including chocolate. Incoming colonists brought sugar and other European delicacies to South and Central America, and the Spanish settlers, after some experimentation, began drinking chocolate hot and sweet.  The trend traveled across the Atlantic but it still took a while for chocolate to catch on in Spain. It wasn’t until the end of the 16th century that it started to achieve popularity, and then only with the upper crust, mostly because of the expensive cacao bean tax. The Spanish had a lock on chocolate in Europe. They controlled the cacao growing regions, and they kept its existence a secret. But interaction between the royal courts would spread chocolate across Europe.

Royal Wedding: The 17th Century Court of France

It took a royal wedding to make chocolate a star. When the Spanish princess, Maria Theresa, came to the French court at Versailles to marry King Louis XIV in 1660, she brought her precious cacao beans with her, as well as her chocolate-loving ladies-in-waiting, and a crew of retainers just to make it.  Hot chocolate was served at the wedding to the cream of European society. It eventually caught on at Versailles and Louis XIV came to love it. His personal recipe included an egg yolk to guarantee a rich thick concoction.

Medical Marvel

Much was made of the medicinal properties of chocolate by doctors and health experts on both sides of the Atlantic. It was thought of as a cure-all for everything from stomach upset to a fever and chills, and was described as an elixir of life. Chocolate was consumed for its health benefits instead of as a sweet treat. Some of chocolate’s rave reviews from physicians and medical experts of the 17th Century are:

“Chocolate, well known, is an invention so noble, that it should be the nourishment of the gods, rather than nectar or ambrosia.” - Joseph Bachot

“Good for the stomach if drunk in small quantities." - Valverde Turices

"Chocolate gives comfort." - Hurtado

"Chocolate is one of the most wholesome and precious drinks that have been discovered to this day." - Stubbe

"Chocolate nourishes and preserves health entire, yet causes a pleasant and natural sleep and rest." - Hughes

"Chocolate calms insomnia" - de Blégny

"Chocolate preserves health and prolongs the lives of old men." - de Quelus

Early European Preparation and Equipment

Chocolate was served hot in liquid form. The 17th century saw the European additions of milk, sugar, and eggs as well as spices and flavorings such as vanilla, anise, rosewater, ground nuts, and ambergris. Europeans added their own touches to the preparation of the rich brew:

The metate stone slab was often imported from Mexico and used to grind the roasted, shelled cacao beans.

The molinillo was a Spanish wooden whisk or beater, used to make chocolate frothy and create foam, and is still in use today in Mexico and South America. In France it was known as the moussoir.

The mancerina was a special saucer that secured the chocolate cup to prevent spills.

The chocolatiere was a French chocolate pot that made it easier to prepare and pour the concoction.

England's Triple Threat

Coffee, tea and chocolate all arrived in England at the same time: coffee from Africa, tea from Asia and chocolate from America (specifically Jamaica, which became an English colony in 1655, and was home to thriving cacao plantations). While chocolate was an aristocratic treat in France, democracy prevailed in England; if you could pay for it, you could indulge. Hot chocolate was served in “chocolate houses,” not unlike coffee houses you see on every street corner today. Forerunners of English pubs, chocolate houses were places where politics were discussed and debated. While chocolate was more expensive than coffee, tea was the costliest of the three. And all three beverages were usually served up with loads of sugar.

Sinfully Delicious

As chocolate increased in popularity, it fell under religious scrutiny. For nearly two centuries, Catholic Ecclesiastics hotly debated whether chocolate was a food or a drink, and whether imbibing it during fasts was a sin.

Meanwhile, the strict and conservative Protestant Pilgrims who fled England for the Netherlands in 1690 took up residence next to a chocolate house in Amsterdam. The partying next door so offended their austere beliefs that they dubbed chocolate “Devil’s Food.”  When they later immigrated to Plymouth in North America, they outlawed chocolate completely from their colony. Years later, dark chocolate cakes in Amsterdam were named “Devil’s Food Cakes” in honor of the stern Pilgrims.


The Pre-Columbian Experience - Part One

1200 B.C. — 1492 A.D. 

The history of chocolate started in the hot, equatorial South and Central American and Amazon regions. It was considered a divine gift, a source of power, a form of currency, and a health food by the peoples of ancient Mesoamerica.


First Encounters

Monkeys were the first to find the cacao plant edible and delectable, not man. In the hottest parts of ancient Mesoamerica, these brightly colored, rugby ball-shaped pods hung off trees, begging to be picked. Monkeys learned of the sweet, refreshing pulp concealed within the thick pod.  Ancient man followed their example, picking the fruit off trees as they walked past.

The sweet pulp of the cacao pod tasted like apricots or melons. But the beans—or seeds—in the core of the pulp were bitter and seemingly inedible. The monkeys would eat the pulp and spit out the beans. Ancient people followed the monkeys’ example, and only ate the delicious pulp. This was probably what Mother Nature had in mind: the seeds were disseminated throughout Mesoamerica, making cacao trees plentiful in South and Central America and guaranteeing cacao’s evolution.


From Fruit to Seed

It’s not known when ancient civilizations figured out how to use the bean. It might have been by sheer accident, when a handful of these bitter beans fell into a fire and roasted, setting off an enticing chocolate-like aroma that made the natives think twice about discarding them. Or it might have been when the pulp of the fruit was fermented into a native concoction called cacao chica and the beans fermented too, sweetening their taste and making them more palatable.  But the transition from bitter beans to food source likely occurred during the time of the Olmecs.


The Olmecs Had a Name for It

An ancient tribe called the Olmecs (1200 to 300 B.C.) from the tropical lowlands of South Central Mexico were the first to domesticate the plant and use the beans. They had a name for these bitter seeds that held secrets to health and power: kakawa, or cacao. According to recent archaeologists’ findings, the beans were an integral part of this ancient civilization’s diet and culture from as early as 600 B.C.


The Mayans: The First Real Chocolate-Lovers

The Mayans are considered the most culturally advanced among the Mesoamerican civilizations. During the Mayan Classic Age (300-900 A.D.), they had cities with majestic pyramid-temples and palaces, a calendar calculated to end in the 21st century, and a complex written language that filled thousands of books. They also were the first true chocolate aficionados, treasuring cacao as a restorative, mood-enhancing cure-all. It became an integral part of their society, used in ceremonies, given as gifts and incorporated into their mythologies.

Burial tombs have been found that contain offerings, including ancient potteries that bear witness to cacao’s importance.  The vases are covered with paintings showing Mayan gods fighting over beans and kings waiting to be served cacao creations.

Chocolate plays a part in Mayan religion. The Mayan’s sacred book, Popul Vuh, contains their story of the creation, and instead of an apple tree, there’s a cacao tree.  In this myth, immortal ball-playing twins are beheaded by the gods of death. One has his head hung on a cacao tree. The magical head manages to mate with a woman who becomes the mother of twin gods. These two defeat the gods of death and then end up in the sky as the sun and the moon.

These first chocolate-lovers did not make chocolate bars as we know them today. Instead, the beans were ground into a coarse paste and mixed with spices, water and chilies to create a variety of hot and cold frothy, bitter drinks. Or the beans were mixed with corn and flavorings to make an assortment of porridge-like meals that varied in thickness from very thin and watery to thick and solid.  These dishes were high in nutrients and very healthy. They also were inedible by our standards and a far cry from the chocolate we eat today.


Toltecs Take the Territory

By 900 A.D., a new group of peoples emerged to challenge the empire of the Mayans. The Toltecs captured the Yucatan Peninsula and then some. Much of the wrangling between these nations was over who controlled the cacao-rich lands, and who had cacao trading rights.

The Toltecs also saw cacao as a divine gift, believing the god Quetzalcoatl had given the bean to men and taught them how to cultivate it.  Quetzalcoatl was banished by the other gods for offering this divinely delicious food to mortals, but he swore to return. This legend continued centuries later into the age of the Aztecs, and when Cortes, the Spanish conquistador, showed up in the 16th century, the great Aztec King Montezuma believed it was Quetzalcoatl returning.


The Aztecs: The Gold Standard

The Aztecs led an empire of almost 15 million people between the 14th and 16th centuries.  Theirs was an aristocratic society, and chocolate was reserved for the rich and the nobles. In fact, the Aztecs prized the cacao bean so highly that it was their form of currency.  The bean also was used as money in Central American markets long after the Aztecs were gone, as late as 1858.


Cacao Currency Fraud

Forgery has been a popular scam for centuries – early civilizations did it with fake cacao beans. A practice of passing bad cacao “coins” was in use in Pre-Columbian times. Forgers would take empty cacao shells, fill them with earth, reassemble them and palm them off as real.

The beans were the natives' "coins." A list of Aztec trading prices looked something like this:
1 small rabbit = 30 cacao beans
1 turkey egg = 3 cacao beans
1 large tomato = 1 cacao bean

The royal storehouses had “vaults” full of this currency. One estimate listed the yearly expenditure of dried beans at 11,680,000. Some of these beans went to pay the king’s attendants. Others went into the king’s chocolate drinks—and he drank a lot of chocolate. Montezuma was rumored to enjoy 50 cups a day.

The Aztecs consumed chocolate in liquid form, as did the Mayans. It was served cold and frothy. The foam was believed to hold chocolate’s fundamental essence, and the ritual of creating the foam is seen in Aztec artwork. They’d pour the chocolate mixture vertically from one vessel to another, back and forth to make it froth. Today, many Mexican communities still value the foam so much they let their cacao beans calcify and turn white before grinding to ensure a heady mug of chocolate.

At this point, chocolate was still a bitter - tasting brew and contained a mish-mash of corn, flavorings and spices. But this would change after the Spanish arrived in the New World.

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