Chocolate has always enjoyed a special place in cultures lucky enough to obtain a supply. Cocoa-drinking Aztecs believed it was the greatest gift a god had ever conferred upon mankind. It’s interesting that the chocolate-giving god — Quetzalcoatl — suffered the same fate as Prometheus, whom the Ancient Greeks saw as the giver of fire. Both beneficent gods were banished from their celestial abodes for giving away such heavenly prizes.
For three millennia, ‘chocolate’ existed in liquid form only. While the Greeks were busy regarding the rise of Rome and wondering whether this newfangled “Civilisation” idea wasn’t getting seriously out of hand, in South America the Olmecs, the Mayans and (later on) the Aztecs were brewing hot chocolate. These were the world’s first chocoholics. Being ritually sacrificed on a bloodstained altar was, supposedly, well worth it, since you got a lovely cup of hot chocolate beforehand. The Aztecs’ favourite drink contained ingredients we might balk at today — chillies, cornmeal and mushrooms, among others — so it may not be surprising that its name, xocalati, literally meant ‘bitter water.’
In the 1500s, Spanish sailors brought cocoa to Spain and hit on the trick of transforming it with sugar. Spain kept the good news to itself, however, for a surprisingly long time. It took the engagement gift of a princess to launch chocolate across Europe: in 1643, Princess Maria Theresa of Spain gave her intended — Louis XIV of France, the Sun King and darling of the age — a chest of cocoa beans. It seems probably that Louis rather liked them, since France promptly descended into cocoa-mania, helped by sycophantic French courtiers extolling its aphrodisiac powers.
News travelled fast (given the lack of social media). Within a scant decade, London coffee-houses were serving hot chocolate spiced with ingredients such as cinnamon, cloves and vanilla. One such house (not a French pâtisserie, as one might think) first baked chocolate into cakes and rolls. Eventually, chocolate-houses set up to rival the coffee-houses.
Thus far, chocolate had been an elite treat. But from around 1730, prices began falling, helped by the advent of the steam engine, chocolate-making machinery and spreading cocoa plantations.
Solid chocolate made its first appearance, in Italy, around 1800, but it was very much a treat for the wealthy. J.S. Fry & Sons put the first British chocolate bar on sale, at a price cheap enough for mass consumption, in 1847. The Cadbury brothers arrived on the scene two years later.
Since then, chocolate has only ever increased in popularity. Notably, UK chocolate sales doubled in 2005-07, partly due to a new demand for high-quality dark or plain chocolate.
Today, the average Brit eats the equivalent of three chocolate bars a week. And we are, perhaps, coming full circle — from the ancient spiced drinks of the Aztecs, to new chocolate drinks: not just hot chocolate or mocha coffees, but chocolate cocktails, chocolate beer and chocolate wine; for example, Rubis Chocolate Wine. This is absolutely delicious, by the way — we’ve tried it and we know — try it with an orange- or coffee-flavoured cake; or ice cream with chopped hazelnuts; or just sip it. Lovingly.
As with many other foods, ethical production is increasingly an issue. The Taster as ever supports Fairtrade & organic; see World Cocoa Foundation to learn more. There are plenty of new ‘raw,’ vegan and Fairtrade chocolates to choose from; try The Raw Chocolate Company or Coco Caravan. The use of nut milks and products like coconut nectar and coconut blossom mean that vegan chocolate is now rivallying conventional chocolate in the taste stakes. Fairtrade products are great news, too, for those working on cocoa plantations or running their own smallholding cocoa farms; look for the Fairtrade symbol.
To return to our historic theme, it’s worth pondering on the link between the foil-wrapped chocolate coins we enjoy at Christmas, and the cocoa beans once used by the Aztecs as currency. Chocolate has always meant riches.
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