Chocolate’s Hidden History

White chocolate is marketed by confectioners a...

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Aahhh, the smell of it…the taste of it…the texture…of course I refer to that thing, that very substance that calls to us when we find sleep elusive at two in the morning; that holy manna that lofts us on high when our physical train is running low on soul coal; the best munchie to be wolfed down at 4:27; the only essence known to modern science that can soothe the savage feminine beast when the inimitable Aunt Flo comes a’ calling. That wonderious thing known as…chocolate.

With the exception of those who may be allergic to it (and even then some of those unfortunate enough to have low tolerance to chocolate will partake, against their better judgment), I have never met the person that can say they don’t like chocolate. And there are so many ways that a person can enjoy it: chocolate milk, chocolate bars (of various kinds), as a fondue dip, as an ice cream flavor, or heated in milk or water which creates the best thing one can have after a day of playing in the snow, hot chocolate. We all have a vague, general idea of how it is manufactured, but how many of us know the history of the very food stuff that seems to unite all peoples all over the world? Come away with me, dear reader, and let us delve into that very mystery.

In the dim and distant past, most the only people who knew about chocolate were the indigenous peoples of South and Central America. They were the original folks who cultivated the cacao tree and its beans. They mixed the ground up beans with water and added chili and various other spicy substances, shook vigorously until frothy, which created a hot to the tongue type of drink. According to pictographs on the walls of some home and cocao storage buildings that yet exist, the drink was mostly consumed by the wealthy, ruling class, and priests. In fact, the bean was used as a form of currency at that time, making it an extremely valuable commodity. It is also said that the cocao tree itself was a gift from the serpent god Quetzalcoatl.

The first European records of the cocao were from the Spanish conquistador, Cortez, who eventually brought this drink back to Spain with him. This is when the first attempts were made to sweeten it with sugar (sugar was another treat for the wealthy at that time), resulting in a huge hit with the nobles. Strangely enough the Spanish kept this drink to themselves, as there is no record of cocao being mentioned in any writings other than Spanish texts for the next almost hundred years.

Eventually, the sugared chocolate drink found its way into the courts of Europe, becoming a huge hit among the elites of the age. Doctors of the times documented its apparent aphrodisiac properties (now I know why we give the ladies chocolates on valentines day) among other medical miracles, and the merchant trade of cocao becomes a larger part of the economy of Europe.

It was during this time that a group of nuns in France started making a solid chocolate, the precursor to our modern day chocolate bar. They probably would have had a hit on their hands, but for the intrusion of the Pope himself. Apparently, church delegates who had visited the cloistered home of the nuns claimed that they weren’t performing their daily chores and up keep, and were behaving in a covetous and gluttonous manner in all things surrounding the chocolate. The Pope was so distressed at this that he banned chocolate by Papal decree, threatening excommunication to any one involved in the manufacture of this devils food. Needless to say, the black market that dealt chocolate to the nobles was a booming industry.

Eventually the papal furor died down, and chocolate began to be mass produced again; most notably by a company owned by John Cadbury (ever hear of the Cadbury chocolate company? Yep, same family) which made him the richest food manufacturer in all of Europe.

The rest, as they say, is history.

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