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Wednesday, 14 March 2007 00:00

Food of the Gods

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By Michael Beadle

Call it a Kiss. A sweet treat. A bonbon. A decadent delight.

 

Chocolate, by whatever name it has been called over the years, continues to charm our taste buds with the allure of some divine pleasure. Films such as “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” (1971) and “Chocolat” (2000) feed off that obsession. There are endless cookbooks and recipes. Valentine’s Day and other holidays are inextricably linked to chocolate. There are even scientific studies touting the health benefits of moderate chocolate doses.

It’s no wonder the scientific name for the cacao tree (which produces the beans that make chocolate) goes by the name Theobroma, which in Greek means “food of the gods.” These trees thrive in the tropical forests of Central and South America, although about two thirds of the chocolate in the world comes from West Africa.

According to an ancient Mayan tale, a prince who went off to war left behind his wife, who knew the secret hiding place where the city’s wealth was stored. Advisors to the prince captured the wife and tortured her, hoping to locate the treasure. But she would not reveal the secret — even to her death. The Mayans ordained that a cacao tree would sprout up where the prince’s wife had died. The tree would grow strong, just as she had endured torture. Its cacao beans would be bitter to symbolize her suffering, and the slightly red color of the beans would serve as a reminder of the blood she shed.

For the Mayans and Aztecs, chocolate was a sacred drink, and the cacao beans were even used as currency. One particular tax record for the Aztec Emperor Montezuma included 160 million cacao beans.

Spanish explorers who came to America would later take the chocolate recipe back to an abbey in the northern region of Spain known as Aragon, where it was turned into a hot drink mixed with sugar, vanilla and cinnamon. Monks would drink it during fasting periods.

The French aristocracy would later discover chocolate, and by the 18th century, court ladies would keep boxes of bite-sized chocolates or “bonbons” (a repetition of the French word for “good”) to nibble on or pass out as favors.

While coffee and tea became symbols of power for the rising middle class in Europe, chocolate was kept for the nobility. It wasn’t until 1777 in Barcelona that the first chocolate production factory in the world opened. With massive advertising campaigns and industry giants like Cadbury, Nestlé, Mars Inc., and The Hershey Company, the chocolate craze is now a billion-dollar worldwide market.

Today, Switzerland has the highest annual per capita consumption of chocolate of any country in the world — an average of 10 kilograms (about 22 pounds) of chocolate per person. The U.S. ranks fourth in the world (behind Great Britain and Germany) with an average of 5 kilograms (or 11 pounds) per person per year.

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