On the fourth day of Valentines Week, my true love gave to me…
Hershey’s, Ghirardelli, Mars, Godiva, Nestlé, Russell Stover, Guylian, Cadbury, and Lindt, just to name a few. Chocolate is by far the most popular confectionary indulgence. We eat it all throughout the year in solid bars, in cakes, covering caramel centers, and in a hot mug with tiny marshmallows. So, what makes chocolate such an irresistible treat especially on Valentine’s day? Take a stroll with me back in time to discover how chocolate as we know it today came to be and why it is so often associated with love.
Although anthropologists have discovered pottery with cacao residue that might date back to as far as 1400 BC, the Classic Period Maya (from 250-900 AD) are the first official known consumers of cacao. Native to the rainforest of South America, the cacao plants’ seeds were ground into a paste which was combined with water, chile peppers, cornmeal, and other spices to make a liquid treat. Once the Aztecs came to power around 1400, they discovered cacao from the Maya through trade and the seeds were so precious that they served as a form of Aztec currency. The cacao drink became a favorite of royalty and honored members of society and was a staple of sacred religious ceremonies and celebrations of births, marriages, and deaths.
With the conquest of Mexico by Hernando Cortés in 1521, the sacred drink of the Aztecs was discovered by Europeans and exported to Spain. The unsweetened drink was too bitter for many, but when sweetened with honey or cane sugar and spiced with familiar flavors of cinnamon, anise, cloves, allspice, and black pepper, cacao drinks became both palatable and highly popular. Wealthy Europeans in the 16th and 17th century consumed chocolate drinks recreationally and medicinally. The Spanish physician, Antonio Colmenero, enumerates the various (and exaggerated) health benefits of chocolate in his “A Curious Treatise of the Nature and Quality of Chocolate,” translated by Don Diego de Vades-forte in 1640.
For, besides that it preserves Health, and makes such as drink it often Fat, and Corpulent, faire and Amiable, it vehemently Incites to Venus, and causeth Conception in women, hastens and facilitates their Delivery; It is an excellent help to Digestion, it cures Consumptions, and the Cough of the Lungs, the New Disease, or Plague of the Guts…Cleanseth the Teeth, and sweeteneth the Breath, Provokes Urine, Cures the Stone… Expells Poison, and preserves from all infectious Diseases.
Many of these assertions are far from true; I wouldn’t prescribe chocolate to cure infertility, Tuberculosis, ulcers, kidney stones, or use it to clean my teeth. But, some of these health benefits have some credence; chocolate does contain a chemical called theobromine, almost identical to caffeine, a natural diuretic, stimulates mood elevators with its small amounts of psychoactive substances, and does leave a pleasant chocolaty smell on your breath after eating it. As for being an antidote to poison, I’d rather not experiment to find out.
Chocolate continued to be a drink of the elite, since sugar and cacao were both expensive imports, but by the 19th century, mass production made chocolate available to a larger group of consumers. In 1828, Coenraad Van Houten invented a specialized hydraulic press that removed most of the cocoa butter from processed cacao, leaving a powdered chocolate from which solid chocolate could be manufactured following the creation of the first modern chocolate bar by Joseph Fry in 1847.
Since then, chocolate has been a quintessential dessert and treat for children and adults. Milton Hershey once said “Caramels are only a fad. Chocolate is a permanent thing.” While I do enjoy caramel, Mr. Hershey is right; chocolate has been around forever, and will probably never wane in popularity.
In fact, in 2004, 1,241 locations in America produced chocolate and cocoa products. These establishments employed 43,322 people with California leading with 136 establishments, followed by Pennsylvania with 122.*
For one thing, Valentine’s Day would not be complete without a heart shaped box of chocolates. Chocolate has always been associated with affection and sex, and is considered an aphrodisiac. As Señor Colmenero said, chocolate “Incites to Venus,” and probably became associated with sexual desire when conquistadors noted that Montezuma, the Aztec ruler, imbibed copious amounts of liquid chocolate before visiting his harem. The famous ladies man, Casanova, was also noted for preferring chocolate to champagne. Chocolate, beyond having endorphin producing properties, has historically been an expensive and elite treat, and even today can be quite pricy. Buying this type of gift gives gratification and pleasure to its recipient because it just tastes so good and elevates our mood, but it also says that your man thinks enough of you to spend $75 on a 29 piece assortment of Godiva chocolate in a heart shaped box. Finally, consider the wisdom of Cher in Clueless; “Anything you can do to draw attention to your mouth is good.”
With that being said, I leave you with some recommendations and a song. Among my travels on the Web, I stumbled upon Kylie Minogue’s song Chocolate. It’s sexy, catchy, and uses chocolate as a metaphor for love.
So, take some time to listen while enjoying your favorite chocolate treats with your significant other. I personally love Godiva’s Open Oysters, Dark Ganache Hearts, and Double Chocolate Raspberry Truffles and Reber Mozart Kugel Delights, which combine chocolate with my other love, marzipan. What is your favorite chocolate treat?
Take a look at my sources of information: A Brief History of Chocolate, Chocolate: The Exhibition, and Chocolate: Food of the Gods.
Statistics are taken from History.com.