Chocolate Food of Gods has been described as being more than a food, less than a drug. This description points to the singular position this wildly popular confection plays in our lives. Popular to the tune of $74 billion annually, chocolate begins as a tiny blossom on a small tropical tree. Only three out of a thousand of these will produce the cacao pods that after a labor-intensive and lengthy journey, with several chemically and technically complex steps along the way, will end up in your hand as a candy bar.
The products of this tropical tree have played many roles through the centuries. In 1753, Linnaeus designated the tree Theobroma cacao, which translates to “cacao, food of the gods.” Several hundred years later, chocolate lovers would agree with this appellation although, for the Maya, who honored a cacao god, the term had a more literal and spiritual meaning. The Aztecs used cacao beans as currency and as food and drink for the privileged. Spaniards introduced the drinking of chocolate to Europe where, in the medical system of the time, those who could afford it used chocolate as a tonic and remedy. The purported health benefits of chocolate are once again creating a buzz as industry sponsored research suggests that dark chocolate might possibly lower blood pressure and provide antioxidant benefits.
Five hundred years after its adoption in liquid form by the Spanish court and nearly two hundred years after a Dutch chemist’s invention paved the way for its creamy solid form, chocolate continues to expand its role. A recent market for premium chocolate has created connoisseurs who seek out rarified confections in the form of single origin bars with a 72% cacao content infused with such back-to-the-future flavors as the aboriginal Mexican combination of ground chilies and vanilla. Today’s consumers of chocolate can have an effect on how it is grown and harvested by buying a bar with a “Fair Trade” label, ensuring that the growers and workers that produced it earn a living wage under humane conditions. Those aware of the loss of biodiversity in tropical forests caused by cacao plantations can buy organically grown chocolate, which supports the more time-consuming practices of ecological agriculture.
And remember, the food of the gods might just, be good for you.
Theobroma Cacao: Food of the Gods
The story of chocolate begins with a tree, a small tree of the tropical understory. In 1735 Linnaeus designated this tree Theobroma cacao, a scientific name that handily links two ancient cultures a world apart.
Theobroma, the genus name, is from the Greek and translates to “food of the gods,” a designation that chocolate-lovers would agree is befitting. Although Linnaeus was reputedly fond of chocolate, he would have been familiar with early Spanish writings describing the Mayan and Aztec beliefs that cacao was a gift from the gods.
Cacao is the Mayan root word retained by the Spanish colonizers of Mesoamerica to describe the tree and its products.
More Than a Drink
Although no one knows exactly when the first person experimented with turning the beans from a cacao pod into an invigorating drink, there is linguistic evidence that the ancient Olmecs of Mexico prepared the chocolate. By the 8th century AD, the Maya were carving images of a cacao god on ceremonial bowls. The Aztecs, later the dominant culture of Mexico, considered cacao a gift from the gods.
From archeological evidence, it is clear that the natives used cacao in a wide array of drinks, gruels, porridges, powders and probably solid substances. Ground cornmeal was often added. Flavorings such as vanilla, chili peppers, honey, annatto, and allspice were often added as well as the dried flowers of various Mesoamerican trees.
Several varieties of cacao are used in making chocolate. All are believed to have originated in the Amazon and upper Orinoco River basins.
How the Aztecs Prepared Chocolate
Although the earliest use of cacao has been traced to the Maya and Aztecs, the recipes for its preparation have come from Spanish colonizers.
One of the earliest descriptions of the native grinding and drinking of cacao comes from writings published in 1556 by a man known to scholars as the Anonymous Conqueror, apparently an adventurer connected to Hernando Cortés.
These seeds which are called… cacao is ground and made into powder, and other small seeds are ground, and this powder is put into certain basins… and then they put water on it and mix it with a spoon. And after having mixed it very well, they change it from one basin to another, so that a foam is raised which they put in a vessel made for the purpose. And when they wish to drink it, they mix it with certain small spoons of gold or silver or wood, and drink it, and drinking it one must open one’s mouth, because being foam one must give it room to subside and go down bit by bit.
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.
When Money Grew on Trees
This facsimile from the Codex Mendoza (c. 1541) shows tribute that the Aztecs extracted twice a year from the cacao-growing region of Soconusco in southern Mexico. Next to the jaguar skins are two loads of cacao beans, which were used as currency as well as the drink of the elite. Each is surmounted by five flag-like symbols, each of which equals 20; therefore, 200 loads were required. The objects below are two different styles of stone or ceramic bowls for drinking cacao, 400 of each.
A 1545 list of commodity prices in Tlaxcala gives an idea of the purchasing value of cacao:
- 1 good turkey hen=100 cacao beans
- 1 turkey egg=3 cacao beans
- 1 fully ripe avocado=1 cacao bean
- 1 large tomato=1 cacao bean
Cacahuatl to Chocolate
Initially, the Spanish were far more interested in cacao’s use as currency rather than its culinary use. As the Spanish colonists settled in, taking native women as wives or concubines, a kind of hybridization, or creolization, between the two cultures began to take place. This resulted in the addition of cane sugar to the unsweetened drink of the Aztecs and the replacement of indigenous seasonings such as chili and various dried flowers with spices familiar to Europeans: cinnamon, anise and black pepper.
Cultural hybridization not only changed the drink, it changed the name of the drink. By the 1570’s, the Spanish were using chocolatl, a combination of a Mayan (chocol=hot) and an Aztec (atl=water) word. One theory put forth for the name change is that the first two syllables of cacahuatl, the Aztec word for cacao, are a vulgar term for feces in most Romance languages.
Health Food of Baroque Era
Wealthy 16th and 17th century Europeans drank hot chocolate for reasons of health. When the Spanish introduced chocolate to Europe, the native Mesoamerican “food of the gods” became a drug, a treatment prescribed in the humoral medical system of the day.
Drink of the Elite
Just as chocolate was the drink of the copper-skinned, bejeweled and feather-clad Mesoamerican elite, so it was with the white-skinned, bewigged and overdressed ruling class of Europe. Chocolate entered Europe as an expensive drug in the medical system of the day. Its soothing nature and mild stimulatory kick soon turned it into what might be loosely termed a recreational drug.
And it was a drug taken in liquid form. Until the invention of a specialized hydraulic press in 1828 paved the way for the solid chocolate we know and love, chocolate was always a drink. It was commonly mixed with water or milk, with flavorings such as vanilla, cinnamon, ground cloves, allspice, and chilies.
Coenraad Van Houten
Anyone who loves chocolate owes a huge debt of gratitude to this Dutch chemist. He invented a process that created an easily prepared powdered hot chocolate, which, in turn, led to the production of creamy, solid chocolate as we know it.
The modern era of chocolate making began in 1828 when Van Houten patented his method for removing most of the cocoa butter from processed cacao, leaving a powdered chocolate. Untreated cocoa mass, or “liquor,” the end result of grinding cacao beans, contains about 53% cocoa butter. Van Houten invented a hydraulic press which reduced the amount to about 27%, leaving a cake that could be pulverized into a fine powder, which we know as cocoa. To improve this powder’s ability to mix with liquid, Van Houten treated it with alkaline salts, which came to be known as “Dutching.”
With the cocoa butter separated from the mass, chocolate makers now had a new and intriguing substance. Adding it to chocolate creates a creamier and more malleable product, making it supple enough to be molded into bars and more elaborate filled confections.
From Blossom to Bar
Cacao cultivation is restricted to the hot, humid belt 10 to 20 degrees north and south of the equator. As the popularity of chocolate spread, European countries quickly established plantations in these regions.
In 1900, Latin America led the world in cacao production, but today Africa does. Although nearly 60 tropical countries grow cacao, Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire, Nigeria, Indonesia, and Brazil account for 79% of the world’s production. Cacao is also grown in Bolivia, Cameroon, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Fiji, Grenada, Haiti, Malaysia, Madagascar, Mexico, Peru, the Philippines, Papua New Guinea, the Seychelles, Sierra Leone, Sri Lanka, Togo, Trinidad, Venezuela, Vietnam and Zaire.
After two or three years, a cacao tree produces rice-sized flower buds in clusters along its trunk and main branches. The unscented white to pink flowers is pollinated by a tiny, gnat-like midge. On cacao plantations, only 3 out of 1000 flowers are pollinated, fertilized and progress to fruit.
Cacao trees flower throughout the year, simultaneously producing pods in various stages of ripeness. From pollination to ripe pod takes about six months. The ripe pods, depending on their variety, can be red, yellow-green or purplish. They can be left on the tree for 2 or 3 weeks without spoiling, but it is important for the flavor that they are harvested only when ripe.
In an era of mechanical harvesting, cacao is harvested as it has been for centuries—by hand. The trees and omnipresent blossom clusters are extremely fragile and easily injured. They produce ripe pods year-round, generally with two concentrated periods that depend upon the timing of the rainy season. After locating a ripe pod, a worker will either pluck it by hand or remove it with a sharp knife at the end of a pole.
Chocolate Foods of Gods
The harvested pods are taken to a processing location close to the trees. Each fruit is opened, usually with a machete so that the pulp and seeds can be removed. The seeds are surrounded by a fibrous whitish pulp that must be fermented off before they can be roasted and processed.
This important process has the practical effect of destroying the seed’s embryo, thus preventing unwanted germination, but, above all, through a complex chemical transformation, produces the characteristic chocolate flavor and aroma.
Depending on the size of the operation, fermentation takes place under a blanket of banana leaves, in large trays piled on top of each other, or in tiers of fermentation boxes. It takes from 2 to 7 days. The heat of fermentation, which reaches 120 degrees, causes the white pulp to melt away from the beans.
Following fermentation, beans are spread on sunny platforms to dry. There they are raked or turned several times a day for 3 to 5 days. Sometimes drying is accelerated with oil or wood burning rotary driers, but sun drying produces the best flavor.
When the bags of fermented and dried cacao beans arrive at a chocolate factory, the beans are first put through a sieve and cleaned to remove foreign material. They are then roasted in large rotating ovens, which brings out their flavor and aroma and shrinks the beans away from their hulls. The roasted beans are inserted into a winnowing machine, which cracks them and blows the hulls away, leaving what is called nibs. If different varieties of cacao are to be blended, they are mixed together now before the nibs move on to a series of rollers which grind them to a thick paste—the cocoa mass or liquor. At this point, the cocoa mass can be made into cocoa powder or chocolate for eating.
Chocolate for Eating
From cocoa mass to luscious, smooth chocolate generally takes four steps.
Mixing: sugar and cocoa butter are added, and usually lecithin, an emulsifier derived from vegetable fat. Extra cocoa butter keeps the chocolate solid at room temperature and causes it to melt at mouth temperature. Evaporated or powdered milk is added for milk chocolate. The ingredients are mixed in a round machine with a rotating base until dough-like.
Refining: the chocolate mixture is passed through a series of huge rollers to reduce the particle size and create a very smooth material.
Conching: this machine, named for its resemblance to a shell, agitates and heats the chocolate. As it is aerated, the chocolate develops its flavor and becomes velvety smooth. Inexpensive chocolate may be conched 4 to 12 hours; premium chocolate for 3 to 7 days. At this time, cocoa butter and flavoring are added to improve texture and taste.
Tempering: the warm chocolate is stirred and gradually cooled in large kettles, but remains in a liquid state. This process stabilizes various crystalline compounds in the cocoa butter.
Cocoa Power, Dark, Milk and White Chocolate
Cocoa powder is basically de-fatted chocolate. A cacao bean contains an average of 53% cocoa butter, a natural fat. Coenraad van Houten’s hydraulic press reduced the cocoa butter content by nearly half, creating a “cake” that was pulverized into cocoa powder: Van Houten introduced a further improvement by treating the powder with alkaline salts so that the powder would mix more easily with water.
Good quality chocolate has a higher percentage of chocolate paste and lower amount of sugar. Standards in the U. S. require dark chocolate to contain at least 35% chocolate paste; in Europe, the requirement is for a minimum of 43%. With the increase in popularity of dark chocolate, many bars contain at least 60% and often 70 to 80% chocolate paste. Dark chocolate is increasing in popularity as can also be seen in the recent introduction of dark chocolate M & Ms.
The first milk chocolate came from Switzerland, land of dairies. In 1875, a chocolatier, Daniel Peter, used the condensed milk from Henri Nestlé’s infant formula to unite chocolate and milk, producing an immediate and long-lasting success. European milk chocolate generally hews to this formula, using condensed milk, whereas American and British milk chocolate contains a milk and sugar mixture.
Today milk chocolate is the most popular chocolate in the world, although the current increase in epicurean dark chocolates combined with a growing number of chocolate connoisseurs could be cutting into its popularity. Milk chocolate contains less chocolate paste than dark chocolate and therefore does not have as strong a chocolate flavor.
White chocolate is made from cocoa butter, milk solids, sugar, and vanilla. Some white chocolate contains no cocoa butter at all—vegetable fat and sugar are used.
Shade Grown Cacao
Historically, cacao has been and still is, a significant source of tropical deforestation. At the same time, it is a crop on which many conservationists and natural resource managers base their hopes for an agriculture that not only provides a livelihood for tropical farmers but also helps to conserve biodiversity in the tropical landscape. Growing cacao under a canopy enhances the soil, protects it from erosion, provides non-cacao products to the farmer and a refuge for an array of animal groups like birds, insects, small mammals, and reptiles. The leaf litter provided by a shade canopy is particularly important for the life cycle of the insects that pollinate the cacao blossoms.
Farmers that choose to grow cacao using sustainable methods rely on organic or premium markets for the higher prices they must charge for making a commitment to increasing biodiversity and embracing a more environmentally friendly agriculture.
Putting Your Money Where Your Mouth Is
In an era of mechanized agriculture, growing and harvesting cacao is still a labor-intensive practice. Although chocolate is a huge ($74 billion annually) global business, only about 6-8 percent of this revenue actually makes its way back to the cocoa farmers, many of whom run small family operations. Labor abuse is said to be rife in some cocoa regions, and reports of farmers enslaving thousands of child workers in places like Côte d’Ivoire have sparked widespread criticism of the industry.
Labor and environmental issues have inspired the formation of such organizations as the Fair Trade Federation, Rainforest Alliance, and Equal Exchange. These are associations of wholesalers, retailers, and producers whose members are committed to growing cacao sustainably, and providing fair wages and good employment opportunities to economically disadvantaged artisans and farmers worldwide. Consumers can help in this effort by choosing chocolates that are organic and carry a “fair trade” label.
Chocolate lovers feel passionate about chocolate, but does chocolate create passion? The question of whether it is an aphrodisiac is an old one, beginning with Spanish observations that Montezuma drank copious amounts of it before a visit to his harem. Casanova preferred chocolate to champagne.
Chocolate does contain small amounts of several psychoactive substances that act as stimulants and mood elevators. There is also the pleasurable sensation caused by the fact that this luscious substance melts at mouth temperature. And isn’t a heart-shaped box of chocolates the quintessentially romantic Valentine’s gift?
Chocolate Food of Gods
All that researchers can tell us is that although eating chocolate is undeniably gratifying, there is no scientific proof that it is either an aphrodisiac or addictive. And as for the recently touted health benefits of chocolate? There have been some intriguing discoveries regarding high blood pressure and chocolate’s antioxidant properties but no doctor or nutritionist is prescribing candy bars as health food.
Mann Library would like to extend special thanks to Professor Jordan LeBel (School of Hotel Administration), for his presentation of ” Pleasure and Comfort: The Allure of Chocolate,” a lecture delivered at Mann on 28 February 2007 in conjunction with the exhibit “Food for the Gods.” Along with a rich overview of chocolate’s history-and a rich array of chocolate varieties for formal tasting-Prof. LeBel generously shared with his audience some expert advice on best ways to savor the allure of one of the world’s most divine foods.