Thursday, 5 May 2016

Chocolate - a millenium in the making.

The Mayans of Central America are believed to be the first to discover cocoa as early as 900 AD. They learned that the beans inside the cocoa pods could be harvested and made into a liquid that would become a treasured Mayan treat. Mayan chocolate differed from modern chocolate. It was a liquid made from crushed cocoa beans, chilli peppers and water. Central America had no sugar.  The liquid was poured from one cup to another until it made a foam. The word ‘chocolate’ is said to come from the Mayan word ‘xocolatl’ (show-cot-il) meaning  ‘bitter water.’ 
The Mayans called it the “food of the gods.” Cocoa was so revered that images of cocoa pods were painted on the walls of stone temples and Mayan artefacts have been found showing images of kings and Mayan gods drinking chocolate. Cocoa was often consumed during religious ceremonies and marriage celebrations. All Mayans could enjoy chocolate regardless of their social status.  
 
 
Cocoa quickly became a force in the Aztec economy. The demand for the cocoa bean brought about a huge network of trade routes throughout the region. When the Aztecs conquered the Mayans they enforced taxes. These taxes were called “tributes” and they were paid in cocoa, so the Aztecs, who couldn’t grow their own cocoa, could have a supply. Cocoa beans were kept in locked boxes in businesses and some enterprising Aztecs actually made counterfeit cocoa beans.
By 1400 AD, the Mayan power was decreasing. The Aztecs ruled over the highlands of central Mexico, far from the rainforests of the Mayans. Since the Aztecs could not grow their own cocoa, they had to trade to get the beans. The Aztecs also had their own word for chocolate: chocolatl (cho co LA til). Cocoa beans were very valuable. The Aztecs used them as money and were very protective of their beans. They paid for food, clothes, taxes, gifts, and offerings to their gods using cocoa beans. Having a pocket full of beans was like having a wallet full of cash. As far as the Aztecs were concerned, money really did grow on trees. 
According to legend, Quetzacoatl (ket za koh AH tul), the Aztec God of Vegetation, came to earth with a cocoa tree and taught the mortals how to cultivate cocoa and make a drink out of its beans. This made the other gods furious so they threw him out of paradise for sharing the sacred drink with humans. When he left, he vowed he would return: his promise would have tremendous consequences for the Aztecs.  


 
King Montezuma, the Aztec king, drank 50 cups of cocoa a day and an extra one when he was going to meet a lady friend. Aztec women were forbidden to drink it because of its stimulating effects. Unlike the Mayans, drinking cocoa was a luxury that few Aztecs could afford. Aztecs believed that wisdom and power came from eating the fruit of the cocoa tree. The drink was so precious that it was served in golden goblets that were thrown away after just one use.
In 1502, Christopher Columbus landed in the Americas. When he returned to Spain, he brought some cocoa beans back to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, but they were not especially interested in the strange new bean.  Hernan Cortes arrived in the Aztec homeland in 1519, the same year Quetzacoatl promised to return. Cortes happened to land at the exact spot from which the Aztec god departed. In his feather coated armour and gold jewellery, he reminded Aztecs of their returning god. No wonder Montezuma offered him a cup of cocoa and an entire cocoa plantation! It made Cortes’ conquest of the Aztec empire all the easier. 
It was not until Cortes returned to Spain in 1528 that the King and Queen took notice. Unlike Columbus, Cortes brought not only the beans but the recipe and the equipment necessary to make the chocolate beverage. For several decades, cocoa was mostly a Spanish secret, but its popularity quickly spread to the other countries of Europe. Some say the first chocolate makers were monks hidden away in monasteries who mistakenly shared their “secret” with their French counterparts.
Once cocoa started catching on, Spanish cooks experimented with the recipe and added sugar to sweeten it. In 1615 cocoa found its way into the court of the King Louis the Thirteenth of France at a royal wedding. His son, Louis the Fourteenth, was not a great cocoa fancier but played a major role in popularizing the drink. In 1659, he granted David Chaillou a ‘royal authorization’ to open the first chocolatier in Paris. Chocolate soon made its appearance in Great Britain. In 1657, the first English chocolate houses opened, much like today’s coffee houses. The drink was still considered a luxury and the shops were only open to men as a place to gamble and discuss politics.
Up until the mid-1700s, chocolate was made much the same way the ancient Mayans made it. Then during the industrial revolution, a series of technological innovations changed many things including the way chocolate was made. First, a Frenchman named Doret invented a hydraulic machine to grind cocoa beans into paste. Soon after, another Frenchman named Dubuisson created a steam driven chocolate mill. It was now possible to grind huge amounts of cocoa and mass-produce chocolate inexpensively and quickly so it was available to people all over Europe. Chocolate was no longer reserved for the elite.
In 1829, Coenraad Van Houten, a Dutch chemist, invented the cocoa press. It squeezed the cocoa butter out of the bean leaving the powder we now call cocoa. He also added alkaline salts to powdered chocolate helping it to mix better with water, giving a darker colour and milder flavour. This process is called “dutching” after the nationality of the inventor.  
Van Houten’s invention made it possible to separate the dry part of the cocoa bean (cocoa powder) and the wet part of the bean (cocoa butter). This separation allows chocolatiers to add different amounts of cocoa butter and cocoa powder together to make different flavours such as white chocolate, milk chocolate and cocoa powder. In 1830, Swiss Chocolatier Charles-Amedee Kohler mixed chocolate with nuts for the first time. A revolutionary advance occurred in 1847, when the Fry Company of Bristol created the world’s first eating chocolate. One year later, the very first chocolate bar appeared. After a 1000-year history as a beverage, this was the first time chocolate could be eaten.
In1875, Swiss born Daniel Peter (son-in-law of Henri NestlĂ©) added condensed milk to chocolate creating the first ‘milk chocolate.’ The food of the gods had come a long way from the spicy, bitter brew the Mayans knew. I recently discovered a new addition to the Thorntons Continental selection that has ticked all my personal boxes. Strong dark and rich. I really looked forward to buying a bag containing just this one, only to be told that I have to wait until June.  After over a thousand years to perfect it - I suppose it will be worth one more month. 

 
 
Shot in the dark
 
Once a Mayan gold mystery
extracted from cocoa beans
became an Aztec currency
stimulating dreams.

Treasure of the conquistadors,
beloved by the Spanish royalty,
a millenium was tempered
smoothly through your history.

Now deeply dark and sweetened
by chocolatier’s skilful hand,
a luxury taken for granted
in this, our plentiful land.

I salivate anticipation
of exquisite confectionery,
a tiny Thornton’s ‘espresso’ shot:
my taste of ecstasy.
 
Be sure to savour your luxuries.  Thank you for reading.  Adele

 

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