Aztec Gold Rush

By Michelle da Silva Richmond

If ever you needed proof that your stomach is connected to your brain, you have only to reflect on chocolate: Memories of Saturday afternoons spent in darkened movie theaters, the familiar, gooey box of Milk Duds clutched firmly in our sticky fists. Who could ever forget the M & M ads for the “chocolate that melts in your mouth, not in your hands?” Or the heavily bespectacled nerd, munching thoughtfully on a chunk of raisin-studded chocolate, cooing appreciatively, “Chunky, what a chunk a chocolate.”

Chocolate has its dark side. But then the basic nature of chocolate has always been bittersweet.

Rich in carbohydrates, it is an excellent source of quick energy and contains minute amounts of stimulating alkaloids: theobromine and caffeine. It is both bitter and sweet; it can be sipped or chewed; it can be found in the lowliest of junk foods or in the most sophisticated confections. Folk medicine has claimed it an aphrodisiac, while modern medicine accuses it of triggering migraines and more. And, it has been considered at the same time to be both worthless and priceless. How could anything so sweet be so controversial?

The history of chocolate is a long and checkered one and begins on this side of the world in a land where money grew on trees - cacao trees. For hundreds of years in Mexico and parts of South America, cacao beans were the principal currency. In pre-Hispanic Mexico, 150 beans bought one slave. Cacao beans were prized by the Incas, the Mayas and the Aztecs - who demanded them as a tribute from their conquered subjects.

The Aztec nobility referred to it as the “food of the gods” and sipped the pungent “Xocolatl” from elaborate gold cups, serving it either warm or chilled by mountain snows. They made it more palatable by blending it with varying combinations of maize, cinnamon, and a variety of spices including one, which has remained a frequent partner to this day - vanilla.

Their culinary expertise of blending just the right amount of unsweetened cacao with a highly seasoned tomato sauce gave birth to a popular Mexican dish, which dazzles palates to this day: mole.

When Cortés and his band made the Mexican scene in 1519, they were not taken with the cocoa bean brew and quickly dismissed it as an Indian concoction. It was not long, however before the enterprising conquistadores realized the economic possibilities they had in their grasp and they found a way to profiteer from it.          

When an anonymous genius stirred sugar cane into the bitter cocoa so favored by the natives, an instant craze was created. The newly addicted Spaniards kept their “find” under wraps for nearly 100 years before the French heard about it. So successful were they in keeping their secret, that the English - upon capturing a shipment of cacao - pitched the lot of it overboard, thinking it was sheep’s dung.

The European and US Connection

In 1657 a Frenchman opened a shop in London, at which a solid chocolate bar, used for making the beverage, could be purchased for 10 to 15 shillings per pound. At this price, only the very affluent could afford to drink it. Any reduction of the cost of the beverage was hampered in Great Britain by the imposition of high import duties on the raw cacao bean. As a result, it was not until the mid-19th century, when fees were lowered to a uniform rate of one penny a pound, that chocolate became popular. Soon, trendy chocolate houses and clubs began popping up throughout fashionable European capitals.

Despite its enormous popularity, chocolate was exceedingly rich and hard to digest. In 1828, a Dutchman found a solution to the problem by discovering a process for extracting most of the fat, or “cocoa butter” from the beans. The resulting powder produced a lighter, more palatable beverage and the defatting process paved the way for the manufacture of “eating chocolate.”

Some 50 years later, a Swiss chocolatier named Daniel Peter had the idea of blending condensed milk from the neighboring Nestle plant, with his product. “Milk chocolate” was an instant commercial success and Switzerland is synonymous with fine chocolate to this day.

While the manufacture of chocolate in the U.S. started in 1765 in Dorchester, Mass., it wasn’t until the end of the 19th century that an eccentric chocolate pioneer by the name of Milton Snavely Hershey sweetened Pennsylvania history. In 1903 he broke ground for the town that would one day bear his name and become a tourist mecca and site of one of the world’s largest chocolate factories.

One Sweet Process

The road from cacao bean to candy is a long one. The cacao plant is grown throughout the wet, lowland tropics in the shade of taller trees. Its thick trunk rises up to a height of 40 feet, supporting a canopy of ovate-shaped pods, which range in color from yellow-brown to purple. Each pod houses some 20 to 40 seeds, or cacao beans which measure nearly an inch in length, and are embedded within the pod in a thick, mucoid pulp.

After harvesting, the pod is split open and the beans are removed and allowed to ferment for several days. They are then exposed to a series of processes, which include drying, cleaning, roasting, and grinding. The grinding yields a paste, called chocolate liquor, and is either pressed to make cocoa butter and cocoa powder, or combined with additional cocoa butter, sugar, vanilla or cinnamon, to produce many chocolate products.

Thanks to our enterprising ancestors, we can savor an endless variety of chocolate, while modern-day chocoholics should gratefully muse that this precious product has come a long way since the satiated halls of Moctezuma.

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