THE BITTERSWEET TALE OF CHOCOLATE

Sweet concoction can be traced to Aztecs, Mayans

Leader Photo by Greg Mellis Mexican chocolate cake is a unique way you can give your sweetheart chocolate this Valentine’s Day.

While doing the research for these columns, I am struck by how frequently my search leads me to Central America and Mexico to find the origins of so many foods. Tracing the roots of chocolate follows the same trail.

It is widely believed that the Olemec people, an ancient farming culture from the tabasco region of Mexico were the first to process and consume cacao beans. The widespread use of the bitter bean, however, really began with their descendents, the Mayans and Aztecs. University of Pennsylvania anthropologists discovered cacao residue on Aztec pottery dating back to 1400 BC.

Initially, it was the sweet, fleshy fruit around the bean that was fermented into an alcoholic beverage and used by Aztec holy men for religious rituals. Later, it became a bitter drink made from the roasted beans that were boiled into a thick frothy consistency and flavored with spices and chili peppers. This is still a popular drink in Southern Mexico called Chilate.

This concoction became hugely popular, and was consumed with nearly every meal in Mayan culture. The Mayans traded the beans to the Aztec people for whom the Chilate became the beverage of choice of the ruling class. The Aztecs revered the cacao bean so much that it became a form of currency valued higher than gold. The legendary Aztec ruler, Montezuma III, supposedly drank gallons of the bitter drink daily as an aphrodisiac.

With the arrival of the Spanish, Conquistador Hernan Cortes was presented the drink by Montezuma’s court to honor his arrival. Cortes was not impressed with the bitter taste. His cooks added first honey, then eventually sugar, and milk, creating the the chocolate drink similar to the one we all know and love today.

The expensive beans were brought back to Spain where the beverage became a symbol of luxury, wealth and power for the Aristocracy. The Spanish managed to keep the beverage a secret from the rest of Europe for nearly a century until 1615.

That year, the daughter of Spanish King Philip III married the French King Louis XIII. The new queen brought her passion for chocolate with her to France, and from there the popularity of chocolate quickly spread to other European courts. As the thirst for the magic beverage grew, European leaders established colonial plantations in equatorial regions to grow both cacao and sugar.

The chocolate drink remained an exclusive elixir for the upper class until a Dutch chemist named Coenraad Johannes van Houten invented the cocoa press in 1828. Chocolate was forever transformed.

The press separated the fatty cocoa butter from the roasted beans, leaving behind a dry cake that was ground into a fine powder. Chefs began mixing various liquids, sugar, and other ingredients with the powder, pouring the mixture into molds to make a solid smooth tasting confection. Van Houten’s press lowered the cost of production dramatically, making chocolate available to the masses.

As the technology improved, family businesses grew to address the enormous demand for the sweet treat. The Cadbury, Mars and Hershey families ushered in the chocolate boom at the turn of the century, and it has never slowed down since. In fact, the average American consumes between 12 and 15 pounds of chocolate per year, much of it on Valentine’s Day and Easter.

This Valentine’s Day, you can bring your loved one some pretty flowers or a box of chocolates. Neither of them will last long, but as a food guy, I have to say it’s much more fun to share the chocolate. Either way, don’t forget the card.

Chef Thomas Jonet has been involved in the food industry in various capacities for over 30 years. His column runs monthly in Wolf River Media publications. He can be contacted at tom.jonet@gmail.com.