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Alchemy: The art of chocolate



The evolution of a royal drink into a staple of life

By Suzanne Biro

Chocolate is the embodiment of romance. Casanova, the famous lover of the 1700s, proclaimed that chocolate was a seductive tool akin to champagne. With Valentine’s Day coming up, chocolate is a sure bet for brownie points (no pun intended).

I am a self admitted chocoholic – I’m not talking a Mars-bar-a-day addiction but the good quality chocolates like Lindt, Valrhona or Callebeaut must be within arms reach so that I can break off a square or two every day. It is easy to justify a daily intake as chocolate contains vitamin D, iron, potassium and magnesium. The melt-in-your-mouth chocolate that we take for granted today is a centuries-old experiment that, even today, continues to be perfected. The alchemy that is the art of chocolate making can be likened to making a great wine and it is a true testimony of human perseverance and ingenuity.

The Central American Mayans and the Mexican Aztecs were the first to discover and use cocoa beans. They roasted the beans and pounded them in a mortar, mixing the resulting paste with chillis, annatto for colour, vanilla and sometimes flowers and honey to be served as a spicy beverage called xocoatl. This concoction would have been very bitter, fatty and quite grainy and thick in texture. Nevertheless, it was a highly prized beverage reserved for rulers and soldiers as it was believed to confer strength, vigor and wisdom. It was also considered a powerful aphrodisiac.

The Spanish conquistador, Hernan Cortes, introduced cocoa beans to the Spanish court in 1528 when he returned from his conquest of Central America. Charles V, then King of Spain, was taken by the drink and suggested the addition of sugar to make it more palatable. It instantly became a drink revered by the nobles of the Spanish court, the only people who could afford such an expensive drink; the cocoa beans as well as the sugar were commodities harvested in far off lands. Cortes established a cocoa plantation in Mexico and he took beans with him to plant when he sailed to West Africa, Trinidad and Haiti.

The Spanish kept the chocolate beverage a secret until the early 1600s. A marriage between Spanish Anne of Austria to Lois XIII of France introduced chocolate to the courts of France and later, in 1660, the French established cocoa plantations in the West Indies and Brazil. During the latter part of the 17th century, chocolate houses, rivalling coffee houses, began popping up in London and other European cities. In addition to being extremely expensive, the beverage was also very rich and difficult to digest as the beans maintained 55 per cent of the cocoa butter after grinding.