THANK YOU MEXICO! Without Mexico we would be chocolate-less. Of course, early on Mexico was home to the Olmecs, known for their large head sculptures, the Mayans, and the Aztecs.
In 1521 explorer Hernán Cortés landed in Mesoamerica and saw a mesmerizing sight: the great Aztec leader Montezuma, bedecked in jewels and feathers, and attended to by 200 wives. And in his regal hand he cupped a golden chalice filled with the cacao drink. This inspired Cortés, largely to overthrow him, which he did with a devastating, bloody blow.
As for the cacao – the bean which is the essence of chocolate today? The Spanish carried that back to Spain and kept their delicious secret hidden for over a hundred years. Gradually, word spread, thanks to the intermarriage of royalty, each secretly sharing their treasured cacao with their betrothed.
Eventually, the Europeans brought their taste for cacao to North America where the likes of Thomas Adams promoted it as a superior drink to the British controlled tea. The Revolutionary War soldiers ate it, a Massachusetts company (now known as Baker’s Chocolate) processed it, and the well-to-do enjoyed it as a hot morning drink, frequently adding the flavors once enjoyed by Montezuma.
Ancient Confections: The Secret to Harmony? Who Says?
Who knew that two ancient confectionery ingredients could provide evidence that 1. two starkly different cultures could come together in a perfect union; 2. opposites can find the perfect balance when brought together, and 3. at least men and women really can co-exist no matter what the sitcoms say.
Ancient Flavor: Cacao
We discovered this symbolically (and tastefully) with two new products we introduced at the shop. One involves the cacao nib – the essence of chocolate in its rawest, most naked form. At the risk of sounding sexist, the cacao is male in nature – the taste is deep, rich, and complicated and the bean fortified by an armor-like shell. Since the Olmecs of Mesoamerica about 4,000 years ago, the cacao was considered everything from a gift of gods to currency. While likely shelled and prepared by women, it resided in the domain of the chiefs.
Ancient Flavor: Pomegranate
Cross the ocean to the Middle East, Mediterranean, and Asia of the same time period and you find a reoccurring symbol in the pomegranate. This fruit, with wet, red, voluptuous seeds was represented fertility and appeared in the Buddhists’ “Three Blessed Fruits,” the ancient Greek myth involving Demeter, goddess of fertility, the Biblical “Song of Solomon,” and many more. The flavor is sweet, the surrounding flesh soft, and the inner seed hard or, you could say, strong.
The Pairing of Cacao & Pomegranate
We decided to put the two together in the shop’s section on the early makings of candies: the sweetness of the pomegranate mixed beautifully with the chocolatey bitterness of the nib. Perfect to eat by the handful or use in muffins, atop cereal, and other possibilities. We taste-tested, including with the production staff at a television station where I was appearing. All those involved came back for more and more – the perfect complement in a healthy, versatile treat.
Dark Chocolate & Figs? A Tasteful Combination
We duplicated the process with another combination – again, the cacao, only this time in the present form of dark chocolate. Our chocolate-maker, Randy, is a true craftsman, a trained chef well-versed in the nuances of the bean. For this effort, he prepared a deliciously dark chocolate – very pure and very rich. We complemented the chocolate with a fig which has long been symbolic of the female genital
Randy bathed the fig in the dark chocolate, covering it completely from the stem to the base. As for the taste test? I can only say that when I passed out samples at the TV studio there was a general pause amongst the crowd after the first bite. Then a sigh of pleasure. The guest who followed me, a romance writer, put it this way: “Oh my God, my mouth just had multiple orgasms!”
Obviously, world peace, cross-cultural harmony, and happy passion between the genders doesn’t rest on the merging of two ancient flavors. But I do think the symbolism is revealing of the potential – the delicious potential – that exists in the universe. I’m looking forward to finding more.
I attended a talk on the history of chocolate at the historic Dumbarton House in D.C. The speaker, Joyce White, managed to cover a broad swath of history in 90 minutes with plenty of interesting facts. Here is a handful with a few of my own thrown in.
We all know that the ancient Aztecs revered the cacao bean: they even considered it money…so drinking chocolate was much like drinking gold. But the crème de la crème of the chocolate drink was the froth. The frothier the better.
Chocolate was considered hot and moist in a purely sensual way. In fact, the Catholic Church of the 1600s didn’t think it was suitable for women. Flash forward about 300 years and suitors were giving women boxes of chocolate to lure them to bed. Who knew some of the fillings, such as nutmeg and cinnamon really were aphrodisiacs.
Chocolate liquor is not an after-dinner drink but the result of the cacao being heated. In other words, chocolate.
Baker’s Chocolate, which opened in the 1700s in Dorchester, Massachusetts just outside Boston, was among the first American chocolate makers. The company was not named for the people who used it but the founder Walter Baker. The logo of the girl serving chocolate drink was adopted in 1883 and based on a painting of 1740.
The Quakers of England, including the Cadbury and Frye family, were instrumental in creating modern-day chocolate, starting in the 18th A great read is Deborah Cadbury’s book on the subject: “The Chocolate Wars.”
German Chocolate was actually Sam German’s chocolate. He developed a kind of dark chocolate for Baker’s Chocolate Company in 1852. In 1957, Mrs. George Clay’s chocolate cake recipe, with German chocolate, was featured in the Dallas Morning Star. The chocolate was a hit but the possessive wasn’t. It was soon dropped and the American-made chocolate took on a new national identity.
Today, most chocolate is made in Africa, not its native Mesoamerica although plenty can be found there, too.