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Food of the gods

Zubin Dsouza

The age of exploration was a fine time indeed. Companies were being set up with the intent to explore far off civilisations and bring home their riches.

Shipbuilders could not churn out their products fast enough!

The reasons for setting out into the vast unknown reaches of the world were numerous.

Some wanted to spread religion to the heathens, others chased gold and still others wanted part in the lucrative trade of spices.

Somewhere along the fringes of all this excitement came the idea to search for the mythical fountain of youth!

Suddenly being young and living forever was the feverish talk of the town.

Masts and sails were hoisted with the promises of bringing back the drink that would cure old age and disease forever.

Hernan Cortes thought he had found just that when he first encountered chocolate.

It was 1519 and Hernan Cortes was already famous. He had swept half of South America away and brought them under the sway of the Spanish crown.

One day whilst taking a break from his plundering, killing and ravaging he tasted a drink which he eloquently described as the source of all vitality.

He thought of chocolate as something that builds up resistance, fights fatigue and allows a person to walk an entire day without food.

The Aztecs were the genius discoverers of this amazing product and they named it ‘Xocolatl’ in honour of the Mayan god of fertility who went by the unpronounceable name of ‘Xochiquetzal’.

The Mayan civilisation believed that the cacao tree originated from the gods and they worshipped it. In fact, the word cacao is the Mayan word which loosely translates to mean ‘god food’. The proper Latin term for the tree also borrows liberally from this moniker and named it ‘theobrama cacao’ where ‘theobrama’ means ‘food of the gods’.

Now that we are done with our little Latin lesson, let’s get on with the history that ended up making the Cadbury’s, Hershey’s and Lindt families famous.

The Mayans, who preceded the Aztec nation by about five hundred years are believed to have been active between 250 – 900 AD, went through an elaborate process of domesticating the originally wild tree and then harvesting, fermenting, roasting and grinding the seeds into a paste. This paste was then blended with the rest of the usual suspect Mesoamerican products like cornmeal, chilli peppers, vanilla and achiote to make a spicy frothy drink. This drink was normally reserved for elaborate ceremonies or for the wealthy and the religious elite.

Then the Aztecs strode onto the scene and they were an amazing nation that totally dominated a major chunk of the continent and they held cacao in high esteem. They asked for tribute from their conquered subjects in the form of cacao beans and their treasury spilled over with sacks and sacks of ….you guessed right! Cacao beans!

The Aztecs considered chocolate an aphrodisiac (which it is because it helps trigger the pleasure nerves of our brains and gives us that euphoric feeling) and their Emperor Montezuma reportedly drank fifty cups of the beverage each day out of a golden goblet.

Christopher Columbus was supposed to be the first European to lay eyes on the beans when he bumped into a canoe near the Yucatan peninsula but he only had a few beans to present to the Spanish court. It required Hernan Cortes, the ‘conquistador’ to bring the recipe to the Spanish court.

The strong chilli-spiked chocolate proved rather unpalatable to the delicate tongues (and stomachs) of the Spaniards and they toned down the beverage by mixing the ground and roasted beans with sugar and vanilla. Of course they kept the recipe a closely guarded secret for a hundred more years before the rest of the world found out and the demand soon began to outstrip the supply.

Chocolate, right up to this point was almost always used as a beverage right until Cadbury of England managed to harden the chocolate by reintroducing the cocoa butter (which was normally discarded as a waste product) and creating the first hand-held bar.

Henri Nestle came up with the brilliant idea of adding milk in 1875 and creating the first milk chocolate bar while Rudolphe Lindt in 1879 created a process called ‘conching’ that made the chocolate smoother and richer than it was up to that point.

Chocolate contains magnesium and iron which is why women (who need more of these nutrients as compared to men) tend to crave chocolate.

Chocolate has been paired with food and drink through the ages. Mole, a traditional Mexican/ South American dish uses chocolate to add a new dimension to a turkey or chicken dish. Chocolate and Scotch pairings are a blend of the two most sinful indulgences where a bite of one and a sip of the other create the most amazing experiences.

As for my experiences with chocolate, with ‘Willy Wonka and The Chocolate Factory’ as my top read do I need to say any more?

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