Chocolate through time

The food of the gods

Theobroma cacao (literally 'god food' or roughly 'food of the gods') is the taxonomic classification for the plant also called the cacao tree and the cocoa tree. A small evergreen tree, native to the deep tropical regions of the Americas, the cacao pods grow from straight out of the tree trunk and are a variety of colours when immature, namely green, red, purple or even blue, turning yellow or orange as they mature - truly a rainbow of colours make cocoa all the more magical a fruit and has helped inspire Chocolatl's colourful branding.

Mesoamerican chocolate

It is believed that cocoa beans were consumed by the Olmecs, an early civilisation from which Mayan culture derived many influences, between 1500-400 BC. Certainly, the Mayans (who dominated the region between 250 and 900 AD)  are known to have cultivated the cacao tree, and its produce was so highly prized it was used as currency, or as a tribute or tax. This practice continued in the later Aztec period until their conquest by the Spaniard, Hernan Cortes, who is also known to have popularised the use of chocolate in Europe.

Mesoamerican people had no access to sugar and thus their chocolate drink was very different to one we might recognise today. The beans were crushed and mixed with water and chillies to make a spicy liquid, which they would pour from one cup to another until a froth appeared. Such was the value of cocoa that images of the pods were painted on the walls of temples and artifacts from the era show images of gods and kings drinking chocolate. It was also consumed during religious and marriage ceremonies.

Unlike the Mayans, who viewed cocoa as a luxury, albeit one that could be enjoyed by all social strata, the Aztecs revered the fruit so much that it was solely the preserve of the male elite. They believed that wisdom and power came from eating the fruit of the cocoa tree. The drink was so precious that it was served in golden goblets that were thrown away after just one use. Reportedly, King Montezuma drank 50 cups of it every day and used it as an aphrodisiac. Because it was known to be a stimulant, Aztec women were forbidden from consuming it.

European chocolate

Though cocoa beans had been brought to Spain by Christopher Columbus in 1502, they were largely ignored by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella at first. Hernan Cortes, who had travelled with Columbus on his first voyage, later returned in 1519. This proved to be a fateful year for the Aztecs as, according to their legends, it was the year that their god, Quetzacoatl, had promised to return. The Aztec God of Vegetation, depicted as a plumed serpent, had descended to earth with a cocoa tree and had taught the people how to cultivate it. Having enraged the other gods for sharing this knowledge, they threw him out of paradise, but he vowed one day to return. When Cortes appeared in his gleaming armour and feathered hat, it is supposed that the Aztecs mistook him for their long awaited god and offered him an entire cocoa plantation as tribute. Sadly for the Aztecs, that mistake saw the end of their civilisation, but for chocolate, its journey to Europe was just beginning.

Though Cortes reportedly did not enjoy drinking Xocolatl (the Nahuatl name for the chocolate drink), he could see how highly it was prized by the Aztecs and so he brought it once again to the attention of the Spanish King and Queen. He realised that warming the drink made it taste less bitter and thus hot chocolate was born! The Spanish began to consume large quantities of hot chocolate, considering it to be a restorative, which is not untrue, as despite its reputation in modern consumerism, the cocoa bean is full of anti-oxidants and flavonoids. As it grew in popularity, Spanish cooks began to sweeten the drink with sugar, creating something more akin to what we recognise as hot chocolate today.

For a long time, cocoa was a Spanish secret - as late as 1579 the English are reported to have raided a Spanish ship carrying cacao beans, which they burned, believing them to be worthless. It was not until the mid 17th century that chocolate made an appearance on English shores, but by the end of the century, English chocolate houses, much like the modern coffee shops of today, were all the rage (though as a luxury, they were only open to men to discuss politics and gamble whilst supping on cocoa!).

Chocolate for the masses

The industrial revolution saw the production of chocolate completely overhauled. Up until then, it had been produced as a drink in much the same way as the Mayans and Aztecs made it. The invention of a steam-powered chocolate mill made the process of grinding the beans something that could be done en masse and inexpensively. Chocolate was no longer the preserve of the elite and began to be enjoyed by all parts of society.

In 1829 the invention of the cocoa press enabled cocoa butter and cocoa powder or solids to be split apart and this led to different strengths and flavours of chocolate being produced, giving us white and milk chocolate today. 1847 saw the creation of the world's first chocolate bar and the idea of eating chocolate, as opposed to just drinking it. Chefs and inventors began experimenting with additions like nuts and dairy, which led to milk chocolates, pralines, truffles and more.

Today, chocolate is enjoyed in so many ways, in an abundance of sweet and savoury foods, but also in cosmetics, and the active ingredient Theobromine is even used in the treatment of high blood pressure. The journey of chocolate from its humble beginnings in the rainforests of America, to the worldwide phenomenon that it is today, is truly one of the most fascinating journeys of food that we know of.

 

Chocolate's journey - from tree to bar

The process of making chocolate is relatively straightforward, but there are several steps involved, and as we have said, the differences in soil, climate, temperature etc can have an impact on the final flavour of the bar. This is also true of the slight variations in the mechanical processes involved. Generally speaking, the format is as follows:

STEP ONE: HARVESTING

Cacao pods are harvest twice a year at different times depending on the region's climate and the plantations schedule. This involves physically chopping the pods from the tree, usually with a machete. The pods are then split open and the white cacao pulp and beans are removed, ready for the next stage.

STEP TWO: FERMENTING

The beans and pulp are placed in large wooden containers, much like wine barrels, and left to ferment for roughly a week. This process is much similar to fermenting alcohol, as the flavour is allowed to develop. The beans are stirred during this time to ensure a more even fermentation process. Even something as simple as how many times they are stirred can affect the final flavour.

STEP THREE: DRYING

Drying the beans thoroughly is the next stage of the chocolate-making process. This usually involves spreading them out into a single layer and leaving them to dry in the sun. Once they are dry, they can then be shipped around the world without the risk of mould developing. Not every climate however is suitable for this natural drying process. Papua New Guinea and parts of Indonesia, for example, have quite wet climates, so they achieve the drying process in these countries by placing the beans next to wood fires. This gives a finished flavour to the chocolate that is infused with a deep smokiness.

STEP FOUR: ROASTING

Roasting the beans is most often a process that occurs at the chocolate factory, rather than at the plantation. Whilst some factories are located very close t their plantations, the hot climates so suitable for growing the cacao beans is actually less suitable for the subsequent stages, so most chocolate is made in cooler climates, like Europe or North America. The actual process of roasting varies from factory to factory - some use conventional ovens, others have specialist equipment that roasts to an exact temperature and turns the beans during the process. The final flavour is very affected by the roasting process, so many chocolate-makers will have experimented many times over to refine their recipes.

STEP FIVE: WINNOWING

Once roasted, the beans need to have their shells removed. This process used to be painstaking before technological advances, as the papery thin shells are difficult to remove by hand. With modern machinery, the beans are cracked and the thin, light shells are blown away with fans, whilst the heavier nibs are left behind. The word nib refers to the broken fragments of beans that are left after the shells are removed. This process is called winnowing, and whilst the nibs are the more valuable ingredient, needed for making chocolate, the husks or shells can be used in making cocoa tea.

STEP SIX: GRINDING & CONCHING

Once removed from their shells, the nibs are then ground with stone rollers to form a paste. This is called cocoa mass or cocoa liquor and this contains the constituent parts of cocoa solids and cocoa butter. The cocoa butter is simply the natural fat present in the beans and it can be split apart from the cocoa solids using a hydraulic press. Many chocolatiers choose to add extra cocoa butter to give the finished bar an extra creaminess and a glossier texture. In cheaper bars this is achieved by substituting the cocoa butter for less expensive vegetable fats, which obviously makes for a less chocolatey and tasty bar. The cocoa mass can be further refined using a machine called a conch, though many artisans now use a machine that combines the grinding and counting processes into one. The conching process changes the chemical structure of the chocolate and so deciding exactly how long to do this for is one of the ways chocolatiers vary the flavours of the finished chocolate. At this stage other flavours can be added, such as milk powder, sugar or any additional inclusions such as chilli or mint.

STEP SEVEN: TEMPERING

Tempering is the process of varying the temperature to form the right chemical structure of the chocolate. Without this, chocolate would be soft and crumbly, so raising and lowering the temperature repeatedly in a control way is what gives chocolate its glossy finish and the satisfying snap that you hear when you break off a piece. Tempering allows the chocolate to melt evenly in the mouth, allowing for the flavours to be enjoyed. Whilst some small artisans still temper by hand, for many larger batch producers, this would be too time-consuming, so tempering machines have been developed to ensure an even process for larger quantities.

STEP EIGHT: FINISHING TOUCHES

Once this stage has been completed, the chocolate is poured into moulds, cooled and packaged, ready to be sold. Voila! The finished chocolate bar, which has been through a more intense process of creation than many people realise. As we have said, variation at all of these stages leads to such an amazing variety of flavours and types of chocolate to be enjoyed.