It IS a “love affair”, and at its heart lies an American story going back at least 2000 years into the world of this continent’s earliest cultures, including both the Aztec and Maya, as well as the even earlier Olmec inhabitants of Central America where the same green and fecund landscape which gave the world such gifts as the tomato, squash, potato, corn, shell beans, chili peppers and a dozen other wonder-foods that feed the world’s billions, produced a pod of bean-like fruit known as cacao. The esteem in which this bush-like plant was held by the Ancients is hinted at by the official Latin name assigned to it centuries later: Theobroma cacao, literally “food of the gods”. It was so highly prized by the Maya that it was associated with religious worship and the healing of the sick, and the drink produced from the powdered nibs was reserved for the sole use of royalty. The word “chocolate” probably comes from the original Nahuatl word xoclātl but our word “cocoa” is no doubt a corruption of “cacao” which became established long ago.
Columbus presented cacao beans to Ferdinand and Isabella following his 1502 voyage, and Hernando Cortez began a cacao plantation in 1519, believing that these magical beans had a future as valuable as Inca gold when he found the native population using the beans as currency, (4 beans bought a high class meal, and for 100 a noble could purchase a slave). Actually it was Spanish missionaries who carried word of this health-giving bean and its beverage to the European continent, where even the Pope gave permission for it to be enjoyed on holy Fridays.
It is a testimony to the power of 16th century Spain that for nearly one hundred years they kept the “wonders” of chocolate a state secret, but inevitably it became a huge favorite in France. The first “chocolate house” in England opened its doors in 1657 where the Cadbury brothers brewed the drink, impressing Charles Dickens to speak of its “nobility” in Tale of Two Cities.
The growth of chocolate-love took off with the invention of the grinding process in the mid-1700’s and its strong popularity in pre-revolutionary New England in 1765. While chocolate as a beverage spread everywhere, the first solid eating chocolate came in 1830 with the capacity to squeeze out cocoa butter as the basis of the resulting “liquor” which could then be molded, extruded and pressed into an endless range of forms. The addition of sugar and other flavorings introduced by the Spaniards much earlier further enhanced the invention and eventual ubiquity of the candy bar revolution which gave birth to dozens of American manufacturing “empires”, from Hershey to Curtis. (Cadbury and Lindt are dominant in worldwide chocolate statistics, and Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Ireland far outdistance the U.S. in annual consumption rates).
To this day in Mexico, chocolate is seen as a basic food rather than a confection. While traveling and staying in Puebla, I was treated to a traditional mole Poblano featuring unsweetened chocolate as a chief ingredient, along with turkey meat, ground peanuts and raisins, ten varieties of chili peppers and a dozen other flavor-setters.
Today, anyone and everyone can enjoy an eating/drinking pleasure which for tens of centuries could be served only to royalty and aristocrats.
Photo Caption No. 1 Cacao beans are allowed to ferment (cure) before being roasted and ground into a powder. In ancient times a handful of “nibs” like this one might have paid taxes or purchased valuable goods.
Photo Caption No. 2 From roasted beans to cocoa powder to solid chocolate, cacao’s journey reaches back into more than 2000 years of history and culture. Dutch-processed cocoa pictured here differs in darkness and acidity following treatment with a potassium carbonate solution.
Photo caption No. 3 Visiting a chocolate shop in Oaxaca, Al Cooper was able to observe cacao paste being blended with such flavorings as vanilla, raw sugar and almonds in small batches as chosen by individual patrons. The finished product would be poured into molds and cooled before leaving the “do-it-yourself” establishment accompanied by the fragrance of cinnamon, ginger and crushed vanilla beans.
Photos by Al Cooper