The next time that you are savoring a delicious piece of chocolate from AmeriCandy – take a second and salute LINNAEUS. This 18th-century gentlemen methodically renamed the world’s plants. And when he faced the cacao tree, the source of chocolate, detachment suddenly gave way to a burst of lyricism.
LINNAEUS gave cacao the gorgeous name of Theobroma – “Food of the Gods”.
And why not? Long before your time the beans of that equatorial tree nourished imagination and body. Today, they nourish a multi-billion dollar industry as well.
When you follow the chocolate trail from the jungles of Africa and Brazil to sophisticated chocolate factories in Europe and the United States, and you taste these torrents of sweet brown delights that flow from those aromatic production lines, your last doubts melt.
LINNAEUS indeed you chose the perfect – the only – name for that miracle bean.
Cacao, as rich in history as in flavor, is said to have originated in the Amazon or Orinoco basin at least 4,000 years ago. Christopher Columbus, in 1502, was the first European to run across the beans, on his fourth voyage to the New World, but he virtually ignored them.
Two decades later Hernán Cortés found Montezuma, the Aztec emperor, drinking cup after cup of xocoatl – a liquid so prestigious that it was served in golden goblets that were thrown away after one use. Cortés sipped the bitter, spicy beverage, and when he returned to Spain in 1528, he took some of the wondrous beans back to his king, Charles V.
He was a man with his eye on a golden doubloon, this Cortés, much impressed by the fact that cacao beans were used as Aztec currency (about a hundred beans would buy a slave). So when the Spaniards left the Aztec Empire, they took cacao beans with them, seeding “money plantations” on Trinidad, Haiti, and the West African island of Fernando Po, now Bioko. Later one pod was brought from that island to the mainland; from it grew the huge cacao trade now dominated by four West African nations.
The Spanish then added water and cane sugar (another New World import) and heated the brew. Soon chocolate was a favored drink of Spain’s nobility. Meanwhile, British and Dutch sea raiders were dumping “worthless” bags of the cacao beans off captured Spanish ships.
The money plantations of Cortés gave imperial Spain a virtual monopoly of the cacao bean market for almost a century. Still, the sweet reputation of the drink began to drift throughout Europe.
Dr. Stephani Blancardi of Amsterdam declared about 1705 that tasty chocolate “is also a veritable balm of the mouth, for the maintaining of all glands and humors in a good state of health. Thus it is, that all who do drink it possess a sweet breath.”
Theobroma came full circle back to the New World in 1765 when a chocolate factory was established in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Thomas Jefferson expressed the hope that “the superiority of chocolate, both for health and nourishment, will soon give it the same preference over tea and coffee in America which it has in Spain.”
In 1828, Conrad van Houten, a Dutch chemist, learned to press out some of chocolate’s fat – a pale substance called cocoa butter – and make cocoa powder. Two decades later, when cocoa butter and sugar were added to a paste of ground beans, “eating chocolate” came on the scene. In 1875 the Swiss developed a way to make solid milk chocolate. New machines were developed to stir, or conche, the liquid chocolate in the process, vastly improving its smoothness.
Today chocolate lovers range from the affluent seekers of the good life to the kid at the candy counter. The food that chocoholics crave ranges from extravagantly lush (and extravagantly priced) assortments down to simple “chocolate bars” which may actually contain no chocolate at all.
Will chocolate make you fat? Most certainly it will, if you lead a sedentary life and gorge yourself on it. But it is an excellent high-energy food. Sir Edmund Hillary and his teammates devoured pounds of it struggling up Mount Everest. All American and Soviet spaceflights have carried it aboard. Armies have often used it for quick energy.
Moderation: That’s the key. Nibble if you will, you chocoholics, but take to heart the advice that appeared in a Spectator article in England more than two centuries ago:
“I shall also advise my fair readers to be in a particular manner careful how they meddle with romances, Chocolates, novels, and the like inflamers……”