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Culinary Discovery

The Lure of Chocolate

by Gabriella True

You crave it. It melts in your mouth. It comes in different forms, cocoa powder, milk chocolate, bittersweet chocolate, and white chocolate . . . But do you know how remarkable it is? Its history is long. The process of harvesting and production is almost as long. The information below will tell you about its illustrious history and the process that takes it from the tree to your mouth, and will give you a few tips and recipes. So the next time you sip your cocoa or pop a piece in your mouth you will love it even more.

The History: The Mayans started drinking cocoa around 1000 B.C.E. Cocoa grew in the rain forests surrounding their territory. They loved it so much that they began growing it in their own backyards. The Mayans gathered the cocoa pods then let them ferment and dry. At that point the seeds could be ground into a paste and roasted over the fire in a clay griddle. The cocoa would be mixed with water, cornmeal and chili peppers and then it would be poured back and forth from cup to pot until a foam was formed on top.

By the 1400's B.C.E, the Aztecs gained supremacy over the Mayans as well as other territories. The Aztecs were not able to grow cocoa trees in the dry highlands of central Mexico so they demanded that the Mayans harvest and deliver cocoa to them as a tribute to their new rule. The Aztec merchants most likely traded for cocoa already fermented and dried to make it lighter for transport. Because cocoa was not as readily available to the Aztecs, it became a drink reserved solely for the wealthy and their priests. The Aztecs believed that seeds were brought from Paradise by the god Quetzalcoatl and that drinking a brew of them would help them gain power and wisdom. They often dyed the cocoa blood red with achiote, the seed of the annatto tree, for religious ceremonies. The Aztecs also used the cocoa seeds as money; they were easy to carry and precious.

In 1502, during his fourth trip to the New World, Christopher Columbus landed in what is now Nicaragua. There he was introduced to the cocoa bean, which was still being used as currency but paid little attention to it since he was still looking for the sea route to India. It is Hernando Cortez, a Spanish explorer, who was the European father of chocolate. In 1519, on his travels to the New World, he watched Montezuma and the Aztec Indians drinking cocolati, a drink made of crushed cocoa beans and cold water; sometimes chili powder or honey was added to decrease the bitter taste.

Because it is so bitter and cocoa was still being used as currency, Cortez was more interested in cultivating the beans for their monetary value, so he started a plantation in the name of Spain to "grow money." Cortez, nonetheless, did bring some beans back to Spain where they were mixed as a drink with nuts or cinnamon to mask the bitterness. The Spanish used a wood stirring stick to make the drink frothy instead of pouring it back and forth like the Mayans and the Aztecs did. It was served warm with breakfast since it was recognized as a stimulant.

For the rest of the century the Spanish did not export the beans throughout Europe but kept the precious product for themselves. Next were the Italians who traveled to the West Indies in 1600 and brought cocoa back across the Atlantic In 1615, Anna of Austria, a Spanish princess, married Louis XIII and introduced chocolate to the French court.

In 1655, England began exporting cocoa directly from Jamaica, which they had recently taken from Spain. Soon after that, chocolate shops were opening across Europe. Cocoa had become so popular that The Church of Rome declared that it did not break the fast and they recognized cocoa as a stimulant, keeping the congregation awake through the long services.

By the end of the 16th century, cocoa was mixed with milk and sugar, similar to how we drink it today but it was still fairly bitter and oily. In 1674, a British coffee house began putting cocoa powder into breads and cakes, which was the first time it was eaten and not drunk. Until the mid 1700's, the cocoa was made as it had been during Mayan times, except that the beans were now ground in mills powered by horses, wind or steam. This mechanization allowed the cost of cocoa to drop in price now making cocoa affordable for almost everyone, not just the wealthy. America began manufacturing chocolate in 1765. Due to the high demand of cocoa, new plantations had been built in South America, the Philippines and on the continent of Africa.

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