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In Matt, Tuesday's Article on December 14, 2010 by Two Barbers Tagged: , , , ,

A Cursory Run Through the History of Chocolate

In 1753, Carl Linnaeus named the tree that provides the essential ingredient for chocolate Theobroma cacao. Theobroma is Greek for ‘food of the gods’ and cacao, a Mayan word with etymology that extends through preceding civilizations as far back as 1000 B.C. Michael D. Coe, the eminent scholar of Mayan cultures, commented “The face-off between the two worlds is nicely illustrated by [this] scientific name…” and writers, and historians writing on the subject seem often to begin around this crux on the historical calendar, despite the fact that it is so far over on one end of the timeline.

It’s probably because chocolate as we know it, as it is defined by governments for food marketing and health regulations, did not really exist until around the time of its addition to Linnaeus’ binomial nomenclature. To be more exacting, it was almost 100 years later in 1828 that a Dutch guy named van Houten patented a machine that enabled production in the bar form that is now conventional. Twenty years later in 1847, another guy named Fry, this time an Englishman, used the machine to manufacture the candy this way, powered by steam engines to mass market them. When Europeans in the 1700s used the word, its denotation was the original bitter liquid that was handed down by the Aztecs and Mayans, albeit with alterations such as sugar, cinnamon, or milk.

Basically, what van Houten’s machine did was press fermented, dried, and ground cacao beans, a.k.a ‘cotyledons’, a.a.k.a ‘nibs’, into fine powder, a.k.a. ‘cocoa’ , dislodging it from much of the fat molecules (‘cocoa butter’) that constituted 55% of its mass while keeping the other molecules intact. van Houten then treated the cocoa with an alkalizing chemical such as potassium carbonate to lower the acidity, taking the edge off the bitter flavor. The cocoa was mixed (this is where Fry comes in) with sugar and additional cocoa butter and then, through an even more elaborate process, made to crystallize in a structure that gave it the smooth, pleasing texture that melts in your mouth.

At the time Linnaeus was applying his playfully reverent, slightly European chauvinist categorization, chocolate was being consumed in pretty much the same fashion as the people of Central America had been consuming it for 3-4,000 years. Evidence for its cultivation and use between 1800-1400 B.C. exist with artifacts that contain traces of theobromine, which is a chemical attributed to cacao and only a few other members of its genus, Theobroma. There are ancient drawings of the tree, connected to gods and legendary heroes, or that depict its traditional preparation, pouring it from one jar into another to work up a layer of foam on top.

It took some time to gain acceptance in Europe. The way the Aztecs took it, it was a bitter, frothy drink usually flavored with intense spices like chili pepper. The conquistadors reacted in pretty much the same way we all did as kids, trying baking chocolate thinking there’d be no difference because chocolate is chocolate; Only I guess they did not experience the same feelings of disappointment. The initial allure for people then was most likely the thrill and mystique they probably felt from sampling a product of a distant culture, as well as incorporating it into their diet. Aided by health claims (a trend that is still common now with antioxidants), its popularity grew steadily to the status of delicacy in Linnaeus’ day; Segway to the innovations of the industrial revolution that have defined it ever since. But whatever movement chocolate made within European culture, it was grounded in Mesoamerica where, for millennia, it was as universal a drink as coffee or Coke is to us.

Today, cultivation of cacao has been spread beyond its native habitat in Central America and the Yucatan Peninsula. It is grown mostly along the west coast of Africa, from where estimated about 70% of the world’s supply comes, but also in South East Asia and even, most recently, in Hawaii.

-Matt
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