I wait upon the Lieut. Governor at Dorchester and there meet with Mr. Torry, breakfast together on Venison and Chockalatte; I said Massachusetts and Mexico met his Honour’s Table.
~~The Diary of Samuel Sewall,* 1697~~
Chocolate, gotta love it. Most people do, although I’ve known a couple of die-hard chocolate haters. Then there are the poor tragic souls who suffer from allergies to chocolate. But—callously, I might add—that just leaves more chocolate for the rest of us theobromiacs, or, better named, chocolate fanatics.
For the chocolate fanatic, chocolate in any form will do: cocoa for breakfast, candy bars for mid-morning snacks, cake for lunch, pie for afternoon snacks, truffles for after dinner, mousse for bedtime, and so it goes. It’s no wonder that each American eats an average of twelve pounds and more of chocolate per year. That per capita figure skyrocketd since the early 1990s, when ten pounds per year seemed like a lot. But the Germans have the Americans beat here – they scarfed down almost 25 pounds of chocolate per person in 2005.
McNeil says, in Chocolate in Mesoamerica:
Chocolate is made from the seeds of the Theobroma cacao L. tree, commonly referred to as the ‘cacao tree.’ For many pre-Columbian cultures of the Americas, cacao seeds and the comestibles produced from them were literally part of their religion and played a central role in their spiritual beliefs and social and economic systems. In isolated areas these traditions continue to this day. Parts of this plant have been consumed in Central and South America for thousands of years. For many of the ancient and modern cultures in these regions, cacao was not only an important part of religious rituals, but also a component of beverages and foods, a topical cream, and an ingredient in medicine. It reached its height of importance in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica, whose northern limit begins in Central Mexico, and which then encompasses Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador and western Honduras. Mesoamerica is renowned for its myriad highly stratified societies including the Olmecs, Maya, and Mexica (Aztecs). Cacao played a central role in the complex elite culinary traditions and practices of these cultures.
Theobroma cacao, the scientific Latin name for this ambrosial food, meaning “food of the gods,” comes from large, elongated oval pods that grow on the bush-like trees. Inside the pods huddle scores of seeds, or beans. And it’s the beans that deliver the goods. Or rather the cocoa. Producers treat the beans by fermenting, roasting, and drying them before grinding the beans into a thick, gluey paste. Modern methods of extracting the chocolate essence remain relatively unchanged since the early Mexicans first discovered the delights of chocolate.
Used as tribute to the many Aztec emperors, cacao fueled the Aztec court with a low-level buzz from theobromine, an alkaloid similar to caffeine. The last Aztec emperor, Moctezuma, and his court drank over 2000 cups of hot chocolate every day. Chocolate intrigued the first Spanish conquistadores in 1519 so much that they hauled it back to Spain and the rest of Europe. Bernal Díaz and Bernardino de Sahagún, chroniclers of the Spanish conquest period, describe cacao and its role in Aztec culture. Or at least what they perceived that role to be.
Before we get to that part of the story, the fascinating etymology of the word, “chocolate,” bears a brief discussion.
Sophie Coe, in The True History of Chocolate, dissects the legends surrounding the word. Most dictionaries state emphatically that “chocolate” comes from a Nahuatl word, “chocolatl” or “xocolatl.” The thing is, there’s no such word, according to Mexican experts on early Nahuatl language. Even the first Nahuatl-Spanish dictionary of 1555 by Alonso de Molina makes no mention at all of “chocolatl.” So what happened? Take a look at the word “caca” in Spanish and other Romance languages. The word alludes to defecation or feces. “Cacafuego” appears in an eighteenth-century Spanish-English dictionary. So “cacahuatl,” or “cacao water,” just sounded offensive to the Spanish ear, and especially to the pious friars who accompanied the conquistadores. Happily, the Mayans possessed a better word, “chacau haa,” meaning “hot water.” They also coined another word, “chokola’j,” meaning sharing a cup of chocolate together. Presto! By manipulating languages a bit, the Spanish came up with a way to describe their new passion and avoided offending anyone’s sensibilities. Without this change, it is highly unlikely that chocolate would have gotten off the Spanish ships in Cadiz.
But those pious friars remained suspicious of the energy-inducing effects of cacao. Chocolate first arrived, officially, in Seville in 1585. Before that, around 1580, Spanish monks began processing cocoa beans. So popular did the drink become that the Roman Catholic Church declared that chocolate could not be consumed during Lent or on any fast days. (Remember the rigid mayor in the film “Chocolat”?) Chocolate-loving Cardinal Brancaccio couldn’t live without chocolate (who could?) declared chocolate to be essential, with these words “Liquidum non frangit jejunum.” José de Acosta first used the Spanish word chocolate in 1590 in Book 4, Chapter 22, of his Historia natural y moral de las Indias.
“Gherkins & Tomatoes’s” own Luis Meléndez painted “Still Life: Chocolate Service,” with all the items necessary for making the drink laid out in fine detail on a copper tray.
By 1657, chocolate cafés dotted the streets of European cities and patrons clamored for the thick, hot drink enlivened with spices and honey. Aficinados drank chocolate spiked with anise, ginger, black pepper, chiles, and cloves. And of course with flavor additions more familiar to chocolate lovers today: honey, cinnamon, coffee, vanilla, and almonds. Tourists who stumble upon Angelina’s on the Rue de Rivoli in today’s Paris get a hint of what drove earlier clients wild – the thick, unctuous hot chocolate comes in while porcelain cups, topped with layers of whipped cream, smelling strongly of cinnamon and demanding a spoon to scoop up what seems like a melted candy bar of pure chocolate. For over 300 years, the Western world knew chocolate only as a drink like Angelina’s, one hopes anyway, and a nuanced taste in certain meat dishes. However, nuns in the sweets-producing convents in New Spain (today’s Mexico plus some other real estate) produced various concoctions other than the usual drinks.
Of course, the Florentines, not to be outdone, under the leadership of Cosimo de’ Medici III, flaunted a recipe for a jasmine-infused chocolate drink, invented by Francesco Redi:
10 librae of roasted cocoa, cleaned and coarsely minced (1 libra = 12 oz.)
fresh jasmine petals
8 librae white sugar
3 ounces vanilla flowers
6 ounces cinnamon
2 scruples (7.76 grams) ambergris
Put cocoa beans and jasmine flowers in a box, one layer over the other. Let rest for 24 hours, then change the jasmine flowers with fresh ones. Repeat 12 times. Add other ingredients and grind them on a warmed marble surface until the chocolate dough forms. Use as you would any chocolate to make hot chocolate.
The recipe only became public after Redi’s death and through the good graces of Antonio Vallisnieri, a naturalist.
Then the Swiss jumped into the chocolate game and invented milk chocolate in 1876. The rest is history.
And what history! From hot chocolate to every kind of candy bar, cake, cookie, and sinfully rich dessert imaginable, cooks manipulate chocolate in extremely creative ways. In fact, with few exceptions, more types of chocolate desserts exist than do desserts made with any other ingredients. That means chocolate is big business, to the tune of over $23.5 billion in 2007, up from $5 billion in 1991.
Thanks to the ingenuity of cacao growers and chocolate manufacturers, you as a cook have several different types of chocolate to choose from. First of all, three types of cacao predominate in today’s market: forastero, indigenous to Brazil, comprises ninety percent of the world’s crop; criollo, which originated in Central and South America, is highly susceptible to diseases like witches broom, thus only produces about 0.1% of the world’s market share of cacao; and trinitario, a hybrid that appeared in Trinidad in the seventeenth century and now grows where criollo predominated until recently. [Note: slave labor—mostly of children—still persists on the huge cacao-growing plantations in West Africa.]
There’s cocoa, a powder made by grinding dried cacao beans and extracting most of the cocoa butter (or fat). Then there’s baking chocolate, both bitter and semi-sweet. Bittersweet, too. Milk chocolate, best for toppings and some frostings, or just plain eating, contains at least ten percent cacao and a whole lot of other things, too. And the list ends with white chocolate, which is not really chocolate at all, but rather cocoa butter mixed with milk, sugar, and vanilla. Great variety exists within all of these categories and much depends on the fatness of your wallet, because the more expensive the chocolate, the better the quality (usually). Or at least the cacao count.
But, for the true chocolate lover, each variety of chocolate has its virtues. Choose what you like and then let loose in the kitchen. Try something savory with chocolate, as in the following recipe for beef stew: remember that the Mexicans, the Sicilians, and the Spanish all use bits of chocolate in stews and other dishes. In fact, the Spanish cook lobster and chicken together with chocolate, Catalan-style. And where would Mexican cooking be without mole poblano, a thick, dark chile sauce redolent with hints of bitter chocolate and an apocryphal history? And what about those Super-Deluxe Brownies? Everything a chocolate lover loves about chocolate, right at hand.
Brillat-Savarin, that noble French philosopher of food, who devoted an entire chapter to chocolate delights in his The Physiology of Taste, suggested that “chocolate of the afflicted” worked very well “when the weight of age made itself felt.” He had certain things in mind when he put those words down on paper, but chocolate works wonders even if age is not an issue. Yes, sir.
Four ounces of unsweetened baking chocolate contain 600 calories, while four ounces of milk chocolate contain 580. A bit of calcium, iron, magnesium, potassium, and vitamin D appear in chocolate. In earlier times, medicinal beliefs surrounded chocolate: people believed it to be a curative for chest or stomach illnesses, an antispasmodic when flavored with orange blossoms, and an anti-inflammatory agent if flavored with almonds.
*Sewall presided over the Salem Witch trials. He later rejected his pronouncements.
SPANISH BEEF STEW
4 oz. bacon, cut into small pieces
½ lb. Polish kielbasa (or other garlicky sausage), cut into ½-inch slices
2 T. extra virgin olive oil
2 lbs. beef chuck, cut into 1-inch cubes
1 onion, finely chopped
5 cloves garlic, peeled and mashed
2 T. flour
1 cup dry red wine
4 T. fresh parsley, finely minced
1 bay leaf
¼ t. EACH dried oregano and thyme
½ cup water
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
½ t. finely grated bitter chocolate
6 medium boiling potatoes, peeled, cut in half, and cooked (keep warm)
Chopped parsley for garnish
Heat the olive oil in a large pot over medium heat and render the fat from the bacon by frying. Remove the bacon to a paper-towel-lined plate. Fry the susage in the oil until lightly browned and remove to the plate with the bacon. Add the beef in batches and brown well on all sides. Remove meat to plate. Stir in the onion and fry until translucent; add the garlic and fry for 30 seconds longer. Put the bacon, sausage, and beef back into the pot.
Add the flour to the meat and onion mixture; stir to combine well. Stir in the herbs, water, wine, salt, and pepper. Cook covered for 2 hours or until meat is fork tender. Stir in the chocolate, cook for 10 more minutes. Serve stew over potato chunks in large bowls. Garnish each serving with chopped parsley.
(Makes a 13 x 9 x 2 pan of brownies)
1 oz. bitter chocolate
¾ cup unsalted butter
3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa
½ t. baking soda
½ cup boiling water
1 cup brown sugar
1 cup granulated sugar
¼ cup sour cream
1 ½ cups unbleached all-purpose flour
½ t. salt
2 t. pure vanilla extract
8 oz. semi-sweet chocolate chips
1 cup chopped pecans or walnuts
1 cup chopped maraschino cherries
Grease and flour the pan. Preheat oven to 350 degree F.
Melt the chocolate square with the butter. Cool. Mix cocoa and baking soda and ½ of the butter mixture. Mix well. Pour in the boiling water and stir until thickened.
Mix in the sugars, the eggs, the remaining butter, and the sour cream. Stir well. Stir in the flour and salt. Add vanilla, chocolate chips, nuts, and cherries. Spoon batter into prepared pan and spread evenly. Bake 30-35 minutes. Brownies will begin to come away from the edges of the pan when done.
EXPLORING CHOCOLATE HISTORY
Chocolate: An Illustrated History, by Marcia and Frederic Morton
Chocolate in Mesoamerica: A Cultural History of Cacao, by Cameron L. McNeil
The Chocolate Tree: A Natural History of Cacao, by Alan M. Young
A Curious History of the Nature and Quality of Chocolate, by James Wadsworth (1640)
The True History of Chocolate, by Sophie D. Coe and Michael D. Coe
© 2008 C. Bertelsen