A brief history of chocolate

We all love chocolates on Valentine’s Day, but where did it come from?


As far as I’m concerned, chocolate is the nectar of the gods. And its evolution to seduction, or at least romance, is no small adventure.

According to author Amy Henderson of “How Chocolate and Valentine’s Day Mated for Life” in Smithsonian Magazine (bit.ly/smithchoc), it was a Mesoamerican luxury item among the Mayan and Aztec elite who made a savory drink of roasted cacao beans with vanilla, honey, chilies, and, of all things, cornmeal. The beans were so valuable they were even used to pay taxes levied by Aztec rulers.

However, in another article in Smithsonian Magazine, author Franz Lidz of “The Delicious Ancient History of Chocolate and Vanilla” (bit.ly/smithchoc2) says that scientists are finding evidence to suggest that chocolate has even more ancient roots. Lidz writes, “Based on a sample from a ceramic jar, it has been believed that the history of chocolate began with the Mokaya, sedentary villagers who occupied the Soconusco region of Mexico’s Pacific coast. Around 1900 B.C., the Mokayas began to consume Theobroma cacao, a plant that thrives in the upper reaches of the Amazon.”

Yet, he adds that new research has detected signs that cacao was originally used in the humid forests of the upper Amazon basin by the Mayo-Chinchipe people as long as 5,300 years ago.

It seems that there are conflicting reports about exactly when and how chocolate arrived in Europe, although it’s agreed it first arrived in Spain by the late 1500s. Henderson tells us that by the early 1600s, the vogue for chocolate had swept across Europe, where chocolate houses in London were social gathering spots — think today’s Starbucks. She also writes, “In France, Madame de Sevigne wrote about enormous chocolate consumption throughout the court at Versailles in 1671; Louis XIV drank it daily and Madame du Barry was said to use chocolate mixed with amber to stimulate her lovers.” And thus, perhaps the first association of chocolate’s amorous abilities.

But the link to Valentine’s Day doesn’t come in until much later. Henderson tells us that the day is attributed to various early Christian martyrs named Valentine, and its linkage to romantic love seems to appear first in Chaucer’s 1382 poem, Parlement of Foules. But there wasn’t any connection to chocolate until Richard Cadbury, whose British family manufactured chocolate, began putting cupids and rosebuds on heart-shaped boxes in 1861.

Henderson goes on to note that in the 20th century in the U.S., Clara Stover and her husband bought out Whitman’s chocolates, their biggest competitor, and focused their wholesale business on drugstores and big-box retailers. And one of their biggest sellers? That sexy “Secret Lace Heart,” a chocolate box covered in satin and black lace — the perfect gift for Valentine’s Day.

There is an endless variety of chocolates, of course. But all chocolate starts out as beans that come from the fruit on cacao trees, which only grow in hot, humid tropical climates. The fruits are called pods and each pod contains around 40 cacao beans. After they are dried, the beans are shipped all over the world where they are processed to remove the shell thus leaving little (and to my taste, delicious) cacao nibs, which get ground down to a thick brown liquid known as “cocoa liquor” that is mixed with sugar and other ingredients, depending on the recipe.

The mixture is dried in vacuum ovens, put through giant rollers, ground to create a silky texture, and then further smoothed in a process known as “conching” — which involves kneading the mixture in giant tanks at about 46°C. Finally, it is “tempered,” a process in which the liquid is continuously cooled and heated in a cycle until it is a stable consistency, and then poured into molds, including those ubiquitous bars and Hershey Kisses.

The amount of cocoa liquor is what gives chocolate its percentage. Personally, I’m partial to deep, 95 percent dark chocolate while I acknowledge that others prefer the milk chocolate variety. But, if you know a renegade who likes white chocolate, you can gleefully inform them that in reality, there isn’t an ounce of any cocoa solids in those babies so, it’s not even real chocolate.

Fortunately, the Vineyard is rife with locales to buy your Valentine your own favorite kind of chocolate to make sure the message “I love you” is loud and clear.