Chocolat, ciaccolato, schokolade, chocola, sjokolade–its name is recognizable in almost any language–chocolate. The word is probably derived from the Aztec Nahuatl “xocolatl,” meaning “bitter drink.” In Aztec culture chocolate was prepared by mixing cocoa paste with chilies, cornmeal, herbs, and water to create a strong, bitter, frothy beverage, which was consumed in religious ritual to boost stamina and clarity. The cacao tree was said to have been delivered to earth from the land of the gods by Quetzalcoatl, the winged-serpent god of peace, wisdom and power. Its Latin name, Theobroma cacao, translates to “food of the Gods.” The plant is believed to have been cultivated for at least 3000 years in the regions of Mexico and South and Central America, and was used in ceremony as well as daily life in the Mayan culture.
For the Aztecs, cacao was more sacred than silver and gold, and emperor Montezuma reputedly drank xocolatl out of a golden goblet fifty times a day. According to the Aztec emperor, “A cup of this divine drink permits a man to walk for a whole day without food.” When Spanish Cortez and his conquistadores defeated Montezuma and raided his palace in 1519, expecting to find a treasury of gold and silver, all they uncovered were massive stores of cacao beans. These beans were also used as currency, and 100 cacao beans could buy a turkey or a slave.
Cortez reportedly loaded the galleys of his ships with cacao beans and sent them to Ferdinand and Isabella along with instructions on how to prepare the drink. However, the bitter, medicinal quality of xocolatl was unfavorable to the European palate and it wasn’t until sugar was added that the beverage began to gain widespread popularity. By the 1700’s, it was available all over Europe, the little brown bean having embarked on quite a journey since first being borne under the wing of the feathered serpent.
The two most popular ways to consume chocolate today–as a solid bar and heated up with milk–are less than 300 years old. A gentleman by the name of Sir Hans Sloane, physician to Queen Anne and a founder of the British Museum, is credited with the marriage of cocoa and milk. His secret recipe was sold to a British apothecary and eventually found its way into the hands of the Cadbury Brothers. And it wasn’t until the year 1847 that Joseph Fry & Sons chocolate factory developed the first solid chocolate bar by adding cocoa butter to their chocolate paste, making it suitable for molding.
For those of you who don’t know, the process of making chocolate is quite the time-consuming and laborious task. First, the large, ripe seed pods must be harvested from the cacao tree using a machete or a fruit picker, and then split in half with a knife or wooden club, with great care taken not to break the beans. The beans are then extracted from their pods and allowed to ferment for about 5 days. The chemical changes that take place during this process are what give the chocolate its color and flavor. After fermentation, the beans are immediately cleaned and dried, usually in the sun, to prevent mold growth. Once dried, they must be roasted and cracked open to extract the nibs, which are milled to produce cocoa liquor, a combination of cacao solids and cocoa butter. These two can be separated and the solids pulverized to make cocoa powder, the cocoa butter added back to cocoa liquor to form paste for chocolate bars. For more information about chocolate processing, visit the International Cocoa Organization at www.icco.org.
Since chocolate has become a precious commodity, its production has been fraught with unfair working conditions and slave labor. Today, about 70% of commercial chocolate production takes place in West Africa. For the past ten years, major chocolate producers have been under pressure to help eradicate industry slave labor, but many continue to evade responsibility. As multi-national chocolate companies continue to encourage more developing countries to grow and export cacao, the price of chocolate gets driven down even further. Farmers around the world need to be guaranteed a minimum price for their product – however, many are not.
As consumers, we can educate ourselves about some of the specifics of these complicated issues by purchasing organic and fair-trade chocolate when possible. Fair trade is a set of transparent standards that applies to smallholders, producers and individuals and includes fair wages and access to healthcare, return to invest back into co-ops and collectives, and often, a minimum price for product. Organic chocolate is subject to independent inspections that extend to fair labor practices and conditions, so buying certified organic chocolate is generally always a safe bet. At this time, only a very small percentage of chocolate produced is fair trade and/or organic, but consumer interest in these issues continues to grow rapidly. For a rather comprehensive table of fair trade and organic chocolate producers, visit this website: http://vision.ucsd.edu/~kbranson/stopchocolateslavery/main.html. To learn more about the chocolate industry, visit www.chocolatework.com or www.icco.org. For information on fair trade, visit www.fairtrade.net.
I wonder if the feathered-serpent had some idea of the responsibility he was placing on the shoulders of humanity when he brought us this gift, or if those who first received it were truly aware of the power contained therein. The cacao plant was, as I mentioned, held sacred in early Meso-American cultures, appearing in depictions of Toltec, Mayan and Aztec ceremonies. Its stamina-producing effect quoted by the emperor Montezuma was probably caused by the alkaloid theobromine, which is a central nervous system stimulant. Theobromine is a vasodilator and is used to treat high blood pressure. Cacao is also rich in flavonoids, including quercitin, which have a strong anti-oxidant effect, help reduce free-radical cell division, and promote immune health. For more information on health benefits of cacao and a nutritional composition chart, visit www.montosogardens.com/theobroma_cacao.htm.
Today, most chocolate bars are labeled with the total percentage of cacao – this includes cocoa butter, cocoa powder and cocoa liquor – so each can choose his or her own cacao intensity level. My favorite flavor combinations are sweet/salty and sweet/spicy. At this time, my top three votes for organic, fair trade mouth watering chocolate are: Theo “Coconut Curry Milk Chocolate,” Green and Black “Maya Gold” (dark chocolate with orange and spices), and Vosges “Mo’s Milk Chocolate Bacon Bar.” Theo, Green and Black and Vosges are all available in Benicia.
While we’re on the topic of chocolate, I’ve got to mention that three of my all-time movies happen to be movies that revolve around chocolate. Coincidence? If you haven’t seen these classic chocolate flicks, I highly recommend: Chocolat, starring Juliette Benoche and Johnny Depp; Like Water for Chocolate, a love story set in Mexico; and (of course) Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The original with Gene Wilder has a special place in my heart but I also love the more recent adaptation with Johnny Depp.
Whether you are a cacao nut (like me), or just enjoy occasional chocolaty goodness, there is a world of information behind every bite of chocolate, and just as many ways to enjoy it (I haven’t even touched on mole sauce or white chocolate). Next time you take a bite, I invite you to savor the feeling – scintillating, invigorating, enlivening, deep, smooth, relaxing, or simply blissful.