Monthly Archives: December 2014

Chocolate History

The TasterThe Taster’s thoughts on chocolate, first published Spring 2014. Our front cover looked a little different back then!

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.

Chocolate cacao pods
Cacao pods on the tree, containing cacao beans

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.’

Cacao beans
Cacao beans. These are ground up to make cocoa powder

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.

from www.gutenberg.net
Early American recipe book from 1780; from www.gutenberg.net

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.

CHOCOLATE BARSToday, 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.

Chocolate comes full circle - from drink to drink; modern-day chocaholics enjoy chocolate cocktails on a tour by www.chocolateecstasytours.com
Cocktails for modern-day chocaholics on a tour by Chocolate Ecstasy Tours

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.Organic vegan chocolate

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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Pure Sauce 4.12.14

The other day I mentioned that food at a feast can become merely a garnish, or sauce, to its more important social side. This morning, I have mostly been  considering sauciness.

The word sauce (and salsa) comes from Latin, sal, meaning salt. Sauce, salt, pepper and spice can all mean piquancy in things other than food (eg “a peppery old man;” “spice things up;” “a salty sense of humour” etc). But saucy has a complicated past. It dates back to 1530 and the idea of sauce-malapert. A Life of Sir Thomas More contains this quote: “He fell to scoffing and saucy jesting . . . using nothing throughout the said answer, but the fourth figure of rhetorick called sauce-malapert.” Saucy and scoffing (which itself has the double meaning of jeering or eating) are also in there; but both seem to indicate impudence, rather than merely being cheeky; while a malapert person was simply insolent. (Two centuries later, Jane Austen wrote frostily of “a pert young lawyer.”)

Around 1600, Shakespeare got as much out of the word sauce as he possibly could (we expect nothing less). One of the murderous conspirators in Julius Caesar has a rude, abrasive manner, which the ringleader Cassius describes as “a sauce to his good wit, which gives men stomach to digest his words with better appetite.” Shakespeare uses saucy in the same play, incidentally, which some of the nobler characters use to admonish their inferiors. It’s a little difficult to tell, in this day and age, whether the saucy cobbler’s terrible jokes are actually supposed to be funny; but when Brutus shouts, ‘Get thee hence! Thou saucy fellow, hence!’ he is clearly not amused but seriously annoyed.

For most of its history, saucy has held a note of disapproval at people not knowing their place in life. But gradually it has become associated less with obnoxious men and class distinctions, and more with flirty women. Not so long ago, the admonishment, ‘Pure sauce!’ or ‘Saucy!’ was still regularly applied to cheeky maids or girls, and famously appeared on picture postcards. But by the time of the Carry On films, saucy could mean any attractive woman, rather than a serving wench — and indeed, women could exclaim ‘Saucy!’ with their own undertone of disapproval (or, alternatively, welcome) at pursuing men.

Saucy crossed the Atlantic Ocean to the USA, but suffered a sea change on the way to become “sassy.” Sassy lost its sexy connotations and is often applied to cheeky children (‘Don’t you give me none of your sass!'”; it has also become a verb (‘He’s really sassing her!’)

This post has turned into a bit of an essay. Feel free to comment and contradict! – Pass the sauce.

Chocolate Nut Sundae 3.12.14

It’s fun to Go Heston occasionally. Or even Delia (and I love Delia). I love to give dinner parties, and in the past have spent days planning and preparing for them. But the most successful pudding I’ve served — the one everyone really did scrape the dishes clean for — was when I’d had no time to think about it. And, with a scant couple of hours to go, I dredged up an ancient memory of myself aged eight, eating a Chocolate Nut Sundae in the local Wimpy Bar. I instantly despatched the Husband to fetch the three main ingredients; and thus the day was saved.
May the below serve you equally well in times of trouble:

Method:

1. Scoop three or four boules (lumps) of vanilla ice cream into a pudding bowl or dish. We can be talking Madagascan Artisan’s Fantasy, or Mr Whippy special here, according to taste
2. Deluge the ice cream with chocolate sauce. I mean deluge
3. Scatter with chopped hazelnuts
NB. If the hazelnuts do not start sliding inexorably downwards on a tidal wave of chocolate sauce, then — you didn’t put enough chocolate sauce on. Add more, immediately; and then some more hazelnuts for the look of the thing

Serve:

As is!

Gift Magazines – The Taster Joins Present Issue! 2.12.14

Ooh! The Taster is looking very spritely this morning.

Reason being, we are now on PresentIssue.com. This is a brilliant idea – a website where you choose, not a subscription, but three or four current magazines, add a personal message, and then PresentIssue gift-wraps them and sends them from you to a friend.  The site has magazines on everything from men’s health and motoring to The Beano and Dr Who, to Cosmopolitan, Psychologies and Hello! – and now, in the food & cooking section, Jamie Oliver’s jamie, the BBC’s good food and olive, and — ta dah – The Taster!

Present Issue web page(Just one Q. Why don’t the other food magazines use capital letters? Should we be the taster? Fire the market research slaves immediately!)

Anyway, we’re very glad to be in such good company. And if you’re thinking of giving a friend some foodie gift magazines, we hope The Taster will add its unique flavour to your selection.

School Dinners Rule (Old School) 1.12.14

Yesterday, I had the best school dinner ever. Sunday roast beef, Yorkshire pudding, steaming gravy, slightly leathery roast potato. Also, chopped swede, cauliflower cheese and shredded boiled white cabbage; all on a separate dish so that those who dislike brassicas or swede could rest easy. It was lovely.

Obviously much of this is nostalgia. I’m not quite sure where, outside of private gentlemen’s clubs, you’d go, now, in London, to find a place serving dishes like this; or, even if you did, how often you’d have to duck to avoid the plates and insults being hurled around by outraged food critics. It’s even 15 years since Sue Townsend first published Adrian Mole: The Cappuccino Years, which included the then still-just-about-feasible character of Peter Savage, the drunken aristocratic owner of Hoi Polloi, a ‘Traditional English, No Choice’ Soho restaurant. This restaurant was supposed to have become a smash hit by serving ostensibly repellent menus such as tinned soup with white bread floaters, ‘ox-liver dinner’ & boiled veg, and Co-op jam roly poly with Bird’s custard, with an extra £6 surcharge for the custard skin (£10 at weekends). Savage has always been one of my fave supporting characters, especially when he refuses to accommodate a ‘distraught’ Princess Michael of Kent (she failed to book a table).

But it makes me think, it must be difficult to be a chef sometimes. So much effort goes towards creating masterpieces of flavour and delight; but the best sauces have nothing to do with ingredients or technique (think of all that wasted effort in the kitchen; it’s heartbreaking). Hunger, nostalgia, favourite company, getting the last available table when all seemed lost – a sufficient quantity of any of these can turn even a tin of pilchards into something rare and wonderful. In the case of favourite company, in particular, the food itself becomes merely a sauce, or garnish, to the main event.

Words, food, emotion, intangibles. They’re all far too interrelated to make it a simple matter of Best Food = Best Dining Experience. Yesterday, I was just in the mood for an old-fashioned roast – perhaps not one of Peter Savage’s special menus, but something tending that way. And as soon as I saw the menu, I just knew I’d landed on my feet. You do, sometimes, don’t you? Dear reader, I hope that this week you find something as delicious and toothsome as that leathery roast potato was to me.

Catrin T-P, Editor, The Taster

PS. If you have a moment, fill in our first ever readers’ survey (Click here), and you might win a rather wonderful prize – a £50 Luxury Christmas Chocolate Collection by one of my favourite companies, Divine Chocolate. It’s not just that the chocolate is delicious – it is, of course, especially the dark chocolate raspberry bars – but they’re also one of the larger Fairtrade champions in the world of chocolate. We’re drawing names out of the Choosing Hat on 15 December in order to get the prize to you (or your giftee, if you want to give it away as a gift) in time for Christmas. Good luck.