A chocolicious affair [Archives:2005/810/Education]

January 24 2005

Research Scholar, Department of English
Utkal University, Orissa, India.

The magic potion of every moony lover, the panacea of an aching heart, the recipe for many a childish whim, the solemn promise of eternal friendship, a chocolate means so much more to us. It is sheer poetry in the world of myriad culinary delights. Rich, dark, and sweet! Sounds sinfully tempting, isn't it? Well it is. Because we are not talking about the man of my dreams, but that delectable seducer called Chocolat. The history of confections and sweetmeats dates back to nearly 4000 years. And it will not be incorrect to say that chocolates have titillated the human palate since aeons. Like Hansel and Gretel in the proverbial fairy tale, we are still irresistibly attracted to chocolates of all kinds.

It is said that the Olmec Indians were the first ones to grow cocoa beans as domestic crop. That was in 1500 BC. But the earliest known plantations were in the Yucatan by the Mayas in 600 AD. In Mayan vocabulary “xocoatl” means a warm liquid. And the Aztec word for cocoa is “cacahuatl.” The Aztecs are believed to have annexed the Mayan plantations making it a prerogative of the upper classes. “Chocolate” is infact a combination of the two Mexican-Indian words ” choco” (foam) and “atl”( water). A mug of the frothy chocolate was shared as part of a ritual in twelfth-century Mesoamerican marriages. Cocoa beans also served as currency in those days. For instance, four cocoa beans could buy you a whole turkey and a 100 beans could also fetch you a good slave!

The botanical name of the cacao tree- Theobroma cacao has a mythical connotation attached to it. Translated it means 'food of the gods'. Cocoa seems to be a part of an extremely hoary tradition enveloped in a cloud of bizarre myths and rituals. Ancient chronicles speak of an extremely interesting Aztec lore. It seems the God Quetzalcoatl traveled to Earth on a beam of the Morning Star. He made a gift of the cocoa tree to the tribe and taught them the ways of roasting and grinding of the seeds. For the Aztecs the cocoa became a kind of paste that could be dissolved in water to form a universal remedy. It became a nourishing diet for them. The Aztec Emperor Montezuma served his guests with cocoa drink in ceremonial golden goblets. It was a royal treat. The drink was believed to be the nectar of the gods that granted one both power and wisdom. In the view of the Mexicans, the Gods in Paradise consumed chocolates; and that chocolates were in fact a celestial blessing to man from the God of Air. Mexican deities Tonacatecutli (the goddess of food) and Calchiuhtlucue (the goddess of water) were believed to be the guardian goddesses of cocoa. Annual sacrificial festivities were held in the honour of these goddesses where the victim was fed cocoa as his last meal. Chocolates have always been envisioned as the catalyst, enkindling the flame of ardour in two loving hearts. Montezuma's consumption of 'chocolatl' in goblets before entering his harem, transformed the chocolate into an aphrodisiac. His love brew was a cold concoction of cocoa flavoured with vanilla and spices with the consistency as mellow as honey.

The journey of the chocolate from primeval Mexico to Spain and finally the global arena is as fascinating as the pages of a thriller. In 1528 the Spanish explorer Hernando Cortez brought back with him a few cacao beans from the Mexican emperor Montezuma. Cortez presented it to the court of King Charles V. It was a secret gift, which became an endorsement of Spanish supremacy and a mark of royalty. The 16th century Spaniards enjoyed their chocolate drink by adding cane sugar, cinnamon and vanilla. Spain popularized cocoa plantation in its colonies but kept the art of processing hidden from public knowledge. The Monks became the practitioners of this technique and the monasteries, its clandestine guardians. Thus the formula remained shrouded in mystery for a 100 years until the decline of Spanish ascendancy. The secret unveiled itself in 1606, with its introduction to Europe by the Italian traveler Antonio Carletti. And chocolates charmed their way to France, Italy, Germany and Great Britain.

Right from the beginning cocoa had always been a delectable whim of the nobility, the consuming fancy of a dame and the cult fad of a snob. The story goes that during the betrothal of the Spanish Princess Maria Theresa to Louis XIV of France in 1615, the bride presented chocolates to her groom after the engagement. It was an elaborate affair with the gift being packed in a classily-designed ornate chest. The royal nuptial was emblematic of the marriage of chocolate in the Spanish-Franco culture. Thus, chocolate became a rage in the fashion conscious French court. Chocolates became a fetish with the famous Italian adventurer Casanova and Madame Du Barry, the last of the mistresses of King Louis XV. If chocolates were aphrodisiac for Montezuma, it was the prime ingredient in a love relationship for Casanova and Du Barry. Oviedo, a 16 century Spanish historian viewed that drinking chocolatl was literally drinking money. Only the rich and the nobles could enjoy cocoa products. It was a high symbol of indulgence. By 1570 the chocolate had established itself as a medicine for physical ailments as well as the wonder-drug igniting the doused flames of passion. But it did not take long for chocolates to become an object of popular demand.

'The Coffee Mill and the Tobacco Roll' was the first of the chocolate houses to be established in London in the year 1657. If Coffee Houses served the literati and the chateratti, the Chocolate Houses appealed to the finely tuned tastes of the snobby. They were centers of elegance and refinement with an air of exclusivity about them. The nobles and the businessmen smoked tobacco in clay pipes and discussed trade and finance over cups of hot chocolate. Drinking chocolate and its interesting concoctions with wine, milk, beer, sweeteners, and spices, became a fashionable social ritual. Next in line were the Emporiums that popularized the consumption of solid chocolate in the form of chocolate rolls and cakes. Victorian England saw the metamorphosis of this elitist beverage from the 'manly' brew to children's treat. It became the recognized drink for kids. With the advent of Industrial Revolution, mass production of chocolates began spreading the flavour to general citizenry. Dr. Joseph Fry of Bristol introduced his cocoa beans grinding steam engine in 1795. The dream of producing chocolates on a large scale was realized.

C.J. Van Houten's invention of the Cocoa -Press in 1828 gave a smoother consistency to cocoa beverages. The 'Dutching' process made available high-quality cocoa in reduced price. It is believed that in 1847 Fry's company created a cocoa paste with sugar that could be moulded. And voila! We had “Chocolat Delicieux a Manger,” the first toothsome modern chocolate bar. Francois Louis Callier the pioneer in chocolate-manufacturing in Switzerland opened the first Swiss chocolate factory in 1819. The Swiss chocolatier Daniel Peter invented the very popular milk chocolates that we consume with so much relish in 1876. Rodolph Lindt's, 'conching' procedure (a method of heating and rolling, by which chocolate is refined) shaped the desirable range of creamy chocolates and chocolate 'fondants' that melt in our mouth, leaving us craving for more. Till date Switzerland continues to be the largest consumer of chocolates with Swiss chocolates being adored the world over.

But it was the Cadbury brothers, Richard and John who brought out the romantic distinctiveness to chocolates that had somehow lacked earlier. Along with Fry, they organized the first ever display of edible chocolates in England in 1849. In the 1860s, Richard Cadbury created the first ever known heart shaped candy box for Valentine's Day and John Cadbury mass marketed the first batch of the boxed chocolate candies. Here's something to chew upon. The Cadburys and the Frys who belonged to the Quakers, (an extremely pacifist religious community), dominated the chocolate manufacturing scene in the English-speaking world for over a century. But it is really amazing that they were well-known for their progressive ideas and liberal attitude towards their workers. The Cadbury family had built an empire consisting not only of factories, but also houses, schools, libraries, churches for the well-being of their employees near Birmingham. The township was called Bournville. Does the name ring a bell? Next time you browse a chocolate store look for a chocolate called Bournville and you will know!

With every turn of century chocolates too underwent a vast make-over. From the nickel chocolate bars and the filled treats of the 1900s to the 'Chic Chocolates' of the 21st century. The delicious range of assorted chocolates would certainly have overwhelmed Montezuma! Here a few new-age sweet treats to tempt your taste-buds:

Ganache is a thick and rich chocolate spread. You can find them between the layers of gourmet chocolate cakes. It's prepared by pouring hot cream over chocolate slices and whipping till the chocolate melts to form a thick consistency.

Couverture is a special kind of chocolate as it contains a slightly higher percentage of cocoa butter than ordinary ones. It is used as coating for truffles.

Truffles are chocolates with creamy fillings. The fillings include orange, coconut, coffee, champagne, strawberry, butterscotch and any flavour you can think of.

Caramel is a firm and chewy candy. It is made of caramelized sugar, milk and butter.

Praline is prepared by mixing nuts (almonds, hazelnuts, peanuts, pecans, etc) and boiled sugar.

Biscotti are a thin slice of chocolate biscuit either dipped or layered with or without nuts.

Nougat is made of sugar or honey, roasted nuts and chopped and candied fruits. Nougats can be soft or hard depending upon its preparation.

Eclair is actually a cake shaped like a tube with chocolate topping and cream filling.

The ecstasy of every chocoholic, chocolates can be plain, classy, organic, hot and, cool. Chocolatiers have transformed this unassuming brown-gold of the Aztecs into exquisite works of art and sculpture. Be it the Easter egg or the rabbit, Christmas tree or scenes from the Holy Bible and every day life, the creative aspect of chocolate is not without flamboyance. Form haute couture to designer perfumery the chocolates are now at the zenith of their magnetism. It has influenced not only the glitzy world of media but also the realm of literature and arts. Who can forget the inimitable 'chocolate-cream soldier' Captain Bluntschli in Shaw's Arms and the Man? Though a treatise on the futility of war, the midnight escapade between the heroine Raina and the fugitive soldier involving the box of chocolate creams is one of the most romantic moments in the history of fictional passion. No wonder they are the idyllic gift for every beating heart that dares to fall in love. This is what the famous litterateur Roald Dahl said of children and chocolates: “They love being spooked… They love chocolates and toys and money… They love being made to giggle”. Having had a bad school life, the only spot of sunshine in little Roald's life had been the boxes of chocolates that were sent to his school by the Cadburys. That was the germinating point of his popular children's fiction 'Charlie and the Chocolate factory'.

Eating chocolate is extremely conducive to physical and mental happiness. Chocolate contains essential trace elements and nutrients such as iron, calcium and potassium. It is also the storehouse of vitamins A. B1, C, D, and E. Cocoa is also the highest natural source for Magnesium. Diseases like hypertension, heart disease, diabetes, joint problems and pre-menstrual tension (PMT or PMS) are caused due to a deficiency in Magnesium. For every chocoholic the food chart consists of dairy, grains, meats, fruits/vegetables, and chocolate. A good antidote for depression, chocolates are recommended for patients suffering from mood-swings. Just as caffeine in coffee relaxes us into a euphoric state; phenylethylamine and seratonin in chocolate make us feel the lover's passion. These two are mood-changing substances, which when released into the blood stream cause a rise in the blood pressure and heart rate. And one can feel the bliss of falling in love.

Every single day in the calendar is dedicated to some day with a chocolate pre-fix on it, be it the Sweetest Day, Chocolate Cake Day, or Chocolate Milkshake Day. The Aztecs' treasury consisted of Cocoa beans and not gold or other precious stuff. Napoleon took chocolate with him to the battlefield, so do the American G.I.s today. Every game of flirting or love duel is incomplete without this alluring sweet. Whatever be the explanation, people eat chocolates for reasons known only to them. As the popular saying goes, “Nothing chocolate nothing gained”, Chocoholics are not only fanatics of taste but also collectors of ornamented boxes, enamel and vintage posters, moulds, stamps and wrappers. After all what's life without a little sweetness in it? 'Sweet like Chocolate', that's how a popular song goes. So spoil your senses and delve into its rich world as you embark on a chocolicious affair.