Chocolate: A Story Both Bitter & Sweet

· ·

Consider the chocolate bar. Peel the shiny wrapper and portion the confection inside. Any half-decent bit of chocolate — tempered well, stored correctly — will begin to melt quickly enough when in contact with the heat of your fingertips. Feel it soften. Sticky touch tracing against calloused prints, friction unlocking a heady aroma. The distinctive taste arrives on a flow of powerful chemical compounds — over three hundred of them — psychoactive ones including methylxanthines and phenylethylamine, cannabinoids and flavonoids. Complex names for a synthesis of experience that has transfixed the imaginations and taste buds of humankind since pre-history.

Who would have even considered creating such a thing in the first place? Which industrious artisan developed the process of harvesting the beans by lopping and then decanting from fat-heavy cocoa fruits, before fermenting and drying, before roasting and shelling, before grinding down into an unctuous, unadulterated paste? Whose cultured palate began to blend into the paste chillis and spices, vanilla and honey? The result was so prized that cocoa beans themselves were used as currency, traded between people and even between nations, while fine, decorative vessels have been found in the Amazon basin dating the preparation of chocolate back as far as 3000 BC. Montezuma drank unending quantities of it and offered it to his elite soldiers to invigorate them before battle. And, just like blood, chocolate featured in religious rituals across the region. Theobroma Cacao: food of the gods. A divine gift to humanity by the wise Quetzalcoatl.

When the Spanish came to Mesoamerica in the 1500s they couldn’t countenance the thing. They turned up their noses at the chocolate drink so beloved by their aristocratic Aztec hosts. It was something that “seemed more a drink for pigs, than a drink for humanity” according to Girolamo Benzoni, although he also noted that he’d never bothered to taste it. When this liquid chocolate was poured repeatedly between two containers, to agitate and aerate and make delightfully frothy, the Jesuit priest Jose de Acosta likened the result to “bubbles like feces”.

But none of this stopped the Conquistador bringing back ships full of cocoa beans alongside holds packed to the rafters with gold and silver and other colonial spoils. They “corrected” the bitterness of taste by adding sugar and mixing with milk rather than hot water to make richer. Soon chocolate emporiums and parties popped up across Spanish cities, patronised by aristocrats keen to sample this exotic luxury from the New World. Choco-latl: food made from the cocoa seeds. But more strictly it should be chico-latl, or cacaua-atl. Even the naming suggests a schism, an imperfect mirroring. The food of the gods made infernal, simple and saccharin.

“Waked in the morning with my head in a sad taking through the last night’s drink, which I am very sorry for; so rose and went out with Mr. Creed to drink our morning draft, which he did give me in chocolate to settle my stomach.” London man about town and diarist Samuel Pepys gives us one of the first written accounts from the UK of chocolate. In his diaries he mentioned partaking in drinking chocolate repeatedly: as a drink to aid convivial conversation, for invigoration, for succour and, of course, to cure his previous night’s over-indulgence. This “West Indian drink” had made its way from Spain by way of Italy and mainland Europe, its arrival in London marked in 1657 by the opening of London’s first chocolate house in Bishop’s Street. Chocolate was eagerly received by the chattering classes of Enlightenment Britain: and soon up popped other dedicated emporiums, where gentlemen and occasionally ladies could partake, conversation energised by this delicately caffeinated and rich beverage. These chocolate emporiums were the first coffee and tea houses long before tea and coffee went mainstream: places where the movers and shakers of political and social life could, over their drink of choice, discuss big conversations in grand rooms. And none was grander — and more dissolute — than White’s.

Established by Francis White in 1693 to take advantage of this new craze this soon became — and remains — the most exclusive club in the capital. Tucked away in Soho, here the highest of high society (men only, then as it is now) would meet to put the world to rights and to gamble — dangerously and ferociously — over mugs of chocolate. Fortunes were made but more frequently lost at the Hazard Table. Bets were placed on every conceivable thing: ranging from the standard, to the mundane, to the bizarre, to the downright callous. Horace Walpole wrote that “one of the youths at White … betted £1500 that a man could live twelve hours under water; hired a desperate fellow, sunk him in a ship, by way of experiment, and both ship and man have not appeared since.”White’s was such a den of iniquity that it was even featured in a panel of Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress. Panel Six: ‘Tom Loses Everything’, our hero wailing to the heavens, lamenting over another lost fortune, to the backdrop of gambling junkies and money-lenders and brimfuls of steaming chocolate.

“A sweet, usually brown, food made from cocoa seeds that is usually sold in a block, or a small sweet made from this.” (Cambridge English Dictionary). But chocolate wasn’t really sweet until it found its way to Europe. And it wasn’t sold in a block until Joseph Storr Fry developed the hard stuff in 1847. Building on the innovations of the Dutch chemist Coenraad Van Houten,who invented the cocoa press a couple of decades earlier, J. S. Fry & Sons formed set chocolate from a paste of sugar and cocoa. The first ever chocolate bar followed: the ultimate grab-and-go luxury. Millennia of ritual distilled into one easy product. Fry’s Chocolate Cream, Nestle’s Milk Chocolate, Cadbury’s Dairy Milk, Lindt Chocolate Bar. The creation of iconic chocolate bars accelerated through an explosion of innovative techniques and machinery, backed up by canny marketing campaigns: Five Boys, Eat More Milk, a Glass and a Half. Chocolate became cheap, democratised, fuelled by a new consumerist society and by acres and acres of plantations popping up in the new world. Chocolate manipulated, adjusted, repackaged – a product tamed.

*** During the annual Aztec ritual in Tenochtitlan, a slave would be chosen to represent Quetzalcoatl. At the end of forty days, during which he had been dressed in finery and given all manner of good food and drink, he was informed of his impending death and then made to dance. If the temple priests saw that he was not dancing as enthusiastically or as well as they expected him to, he was given a drink of itzpacalatl, which was a mix of cacao and water used to wash obsidian blades. These were sacrificial blades, and therefore crusted in blood. The sacrifice would be rejuvenated and joyful after drinking this mixture of blood and chocolate, and dance to his death. 

— Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate***

Today the global value of chocolate consumption is an estimated $140 billion worldwide. One third of that is consumed in Western Europe. And the UK is the biggest consumer of all. But the market forces that once shaped saccharine chocolate as we now know it are changing, leading to new taste experiences: low sugar and higher cocoa, rich with spices, fairly produced with known provenance, including different kinds of drinking chocolate, using traditional methods and techniques. It’s a nod to the true origins of the food of the gods – perhaps a reminder that we cannot help but return to our roots, that purity and quality will ultimately shine through. A reminder of the gift of Quetzalcoatl.

For more from Jai Ubhi, follow his Insta @GrumJelly

  • Leave a Reply