Food of the Gods

The Utterly Divine History of Chocolate

 11 July 2019, by Russell Bowes

 Cleverly lacing his talk with excerpts from both Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and the Gene Wilder film Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory, Russell brought the story of chocolate very much to life, his animated screen sequences adding to the theatricality of the presentation.

Taking Charlie Bucket (our audience) through the WHERE door, he explained that chocolate comes from trees, found, for example, in the Equatorial Guinea rainforest. Chocolate grows only within 20° latitude of the Equator, in Central America, South America, West Africa, and Indonesia, its trees pollinated by midges, requiring decaying leaves, heat, and damp in the plantations. Between 6 and 8 months are needed for the flowers to turn into a pod, inside which the beans are surrounded by white pulp. Beans pass through various colours: green, yellow, orange, pink, and brown. Apparently, the scent of the pink and white flowers, actually growing on the trunk of the tree [a botanical phenomenon known as ‘colliflori’], sends midges wild with excitement, although only around 10% of pollination is successful. The Linnæus classification theobroma cacao (1753) has been applied to the tree, its first element meaning ‘food of the gods’, its second accounting for the term ‘cacao’ or ‘cocoa’.

Then, through the WHEN door, we met historic Mayans, in the lands of Mexico and Guatemala, where the pods were used as currency, for trading, fifty beans perhaps buying one a rabbit, 150 a chicken, 500 a piglet; our Christmas tree chocolates in gold foil reflect this practice. Even in those times, unscrupulous people would pass off beans, filled with mud, hence, as we say, ‘not worth a bean’. Villagers would pound beans into a cup of chocolate, since chocolate was known initially, and for a long time, as a drink, rather than the solid confectionery item which we know today.

Beans were roasted, peeled, ground under heat, then immersed in hot water, becoming frothy and aerated. It was the drink of gods, warriors, and kings, being dark, rich, complex, with a spicy, bitter aftertaste serving to make the brain feel happy, just as chocolate is universally popular and apt to give people a ‘high’ nowadays.

In the 1500s, the Conquistadors arrived. Having overcome the Aztecs, they turned their attention to the Mayans, and by the 1630s, the Spanish and Portuguese were the undisputed masters, enslaving native peoples, plundering, and sending away to Europe exotic plants such as maize, tomatoes, tobacco, and cocoa beans. A supply of the chocolate drink was kept at San Cristobal, Mexico, for consumption during High Mass, but, when a bishop disapproved of this, the people boycotted Mass, and passed a poisoned pot of chocolate to His Grace, who succumbed the following day. Wisely, his successor let things be!

Chocolate, the drink, was served in a silver pot, or chocolatière, in the lid of which was an aperture for a frothing stick, or molinet. Sweetened with sugar stirred with a spoon, it was drunk accompanied by pastries dunked in chocolate. In the Burgtheater, Vienna, 1790, Mozart’s Così fan tutte has Despina, the maidservant, preparing chocolate, and, despite her not being permitted to taste it, she wishes to try it anyway……

Our cacao beans, shrivelled and pale, lie in a stall in big piles, stirred twice daily and left to ferment, then passed to another stall, and so on, up to eight stalls in all. On Grenada, shells are removed by walking on the beans, next sieved through a kind of tumble dryer, rendering them bitter and nibbly. These nibs are then roasted and sent to hoppers, thence to a milling shed, ground into a cocoa mass, until the cocoa liquor emerges. Sugar and milk are added, the whole being turned into bars, every single pod from one tree being required to make just one bar.Within the EU, milk chocolate must contain >25% cocoa solids, plain chocolate at least 35%, while black (baking) chocolate requires 98%; however, ‘white’ chocolate is widely considered not to be a true chocolate at all, since it bears no cocoa liquor, and has been classified, in the USA, as ‘white edible candy’.

Until 1847, chocolate remained a drink, until Fry [a leading Quaker chocolate maker, like Rowntree and Cadbury] realised that, if cocoa butter were removed, melted cocoa butter reintroduced, and the matter poured into a mould, the substance would set into the shape of a bar. Initially, it became plain chocolate, but Peter, then Nestlé, in 1875, employed powdered milk and added sugar, so producing milk chocolate. In 1879, Lindt, with his ‘conching’ process, made his chocolate brittle, giving it the property of being able to be snapped.

Russell concluded his talk by offering his opinion that the best chocolate is the expensive kind, brittle, able to snap, and best eaten, not by crunching it between the teeth, but by applying it to the tip of the tongue and letting it melt in the mouth. He then awarded some chocolate to one member of our audience lucky to have found, under his seat, that Golden Ticket so prized by Charlie Bucket. Magical!

Stefan Gatward