A Swallow’s Eye View – With Easter on our doorstep Jan Moran Neil gives us the origins of …Sheer Delight: Chocolate

Chocolate strawberry. Image byelehrke from http://www.sxc.hu/photo/1372797What do the Maya, the Aztecs, Hernán Cortes, Queen Anne of Austria, Sir Hans Sloane and William Cadbury have in common? The last one was a sweet giveaway, wasn’t it?  This swallow brings those sweet giveaways in her hand luggage when she flies across.  Your chocolate is so expensive.  Is it worth it?

Considered an aphrodisiac, a symbol of love and with a long tradition of being eaten at all festivals as a luxury, ladies love a chocolate. With Valentine’s Day at our heels and with Easter on an early spring doorstep, our moveable feast is traditionally celebrated with the chocolate egg. But its journey to our coffee table has been long.

Chocolate began 2000 years ago in the tropical rainforests of the Americas. Enter the Mayas who took the pods of the cacao (kah kow) tree, containing seeds which were processed into a spicy drink but not the kind of Hot Chocolate we know. It was a bitter drink and by 1400 the Aztecs were trading with the Maya and using the cacao seeds as a form of money. The Aztecs drank their early version of Hot Chocolate at royal and religious events, offering the cacao seeds to the gods.

When Hernán Cortes conquered Mexico in 1521, the Spanish began to import the seeds back home and they couldn’t get enough of this new drink. It soon became a court favourite and was so expensive that it remained an exclusive

luxury and a Spanish secret for a hundred years. The Spanish drank the chocolate with cinnamon and sugar and blended it with a molinilla, a wood stirring stick which whipped the chocolate into foam giving birth, after a fashion, to the Hot Chocolate. Chocolate has been viewed with sweet affection for centuries: the Spanish believed it had restorative and nutritional properties and so the Catholic Church allowed people to drink it in liquid form during fasting periods.

The sweet Spanish secret slipped in the seventeenth century and European royal courts began tasting the delights. This is where Sir Hans Sloane, president of the Royal College of Physicians comes in. Sir Hans introduced mixing the chocolate drink with milk and in 1657 the first chocolate house opened in London, before the advent of coffee houses. The chocolate houses were ‘Men Only’ venues and must have suffered commercially in their choice of exclusive target market.

And so to the solid chocolate bar as we know it, and treats for the masses … Both were a result of the industrial revolution when machinery made it possible to create chocolate in solid form and mass produce cheaply enough for the common man, and woman, to purchase and enjoy.

In fact the poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe said to accompany a box of chocolates in 1820, “Enjoy this whenever it suits your mood, not as a drink but as a much loved food”.

Thus the bar of chocolate and the commercial slogan were born in a double helping.

In 1875 Nestlé introduced condensed milk to chocolate whilst less than twenty years later Hershey produced chocolate-coated caramels with Mars, not a planet away from here in Slough, (sorry I couldn’t resist that one) creating their malted-milk filled Milky Way.

There have always been slaves to chocolate but the commercial demand for luxury products like sugar and cacao forced cheap labour in the Americas and on the Equator. In 1910, William Cadbury refused to buy cacao from plantations where there was slave labour and harsh working conditions.  Their factory – Cadbury World – in Birmingham, UK is a veritable Willy Wonka factory and well worth the visit.

So where does Queen Anne of Austria fit in?  Probably, not into very much as her claim to fame was that she was ‘self-confessed chocoholic’.  It’s satisfying to know that women have made their contribution to the history of chocolate …

Quirky chockie facts:

  1. Queen Victoria got her soldiers hooked on chocolate in the late nineteenth century by sending them chocolate gifts.
  2. It’s difficult to get hooked on chocolate as is possible with nicotine or alcohol.  To get a ‘high’ one would have to eat more than 25 pounds of chocolate in one sitting.
  3. By 1930 there were nearly 40,000 different types of chocolate.
  4. The Chinese eat one bar of chocolate for every 1000 eaten by the British.
  5. The Marquis de Sade’s wife sent her husband chocolate when he was in prison.  (She was obviously no sadist.)
  6. A Harvard University study found that men who ate chocolate lived a year longer than men who didn’t.  Gentlemen, if this isn’t enough to get you nibbling then read …
  7. Casanova drank chocolate daily and preferred it to champagne. Now, who needs Viagra?

Useful reading:

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl

Chocolat by Joanne Harris