Earlier this century, I wrote and copy edited for Boise Journal, its successor Boise, and several spin-offs. Besides being a genial group, the publishers and editors knew that the city’s readers had inquiring minds, and as a result I had an opportunity to write about a wide range of subjects, from history and literature to music and food. “Three Cheers for Chocolate” originally appeared in a somewhat different form in the Winter 2010 issues of Boise and Boise Home & Design.
It was Linnaeus who gave the cacao tree the name Theobroma, “food of the gods.” The great Swedish botanist must have been a chocolate lover.
Bite into even the most ordinary bar—let’s say Hershey’s Milk Chocolate in the iconic brown and silver wrapper—and it’s hard to disagree. The smooth texture, the extraordinarily rich and complex flavor, the subtle but very real sensation of wellbeing that follows—yes, this is what the food of the gods must taste like. But it’s a long journey from the tropical forests to that seemingly simple bar, and if you were to bite into a cacao bean instead, you’d be bitterly disappointed. Literally.
Theobroma cacao, to give the species its exact name, probably originated in the Amazon basin, but today experts distinguish between three varieties grown in various parts of the tropics, generally within 10 degrees of the equator. Criollos are deemed the best, while forastero cacaos are hardier but of lower quality. The third variety, trinitario, may be a cross of the other two. Yet in the world of chocolate, that’s just the beginning. Just as identical varieties of grape take on different characteristics from locale to locale, so do cacao trees.
(The term cacao, by the way, is usually applied to the tree and its seeds, or beans. After those beans are subjected to a long series of operations that I’ll describe below, the result is chocolate. The removal of the “butter,” or fat, from the chocolate leaves—finally—cocoa. The difference in spelling between cacao and cocoa is apparently the result of an eighteenth-century error.)
Cacao trees are too fragile to be climbed, so cultivated specimens are pruned to 20 feet or so. Pruned or not, however, they look decidedly strange. The flowers grow on the trees’ trunks, to be succeeded by waxy red or yellow pods that can approach the size of footballs. The trees bear flowers and pods at the same time, but are not terribly prolific, with the average tree producing about 30 pods a year.
Workers split the pods and scrape out the pulp and beans. Next they spread the beans in the sun to “ferment,” a process in which cacao’s rich flavor begins to develop. By the time the beans have dried, that average tree’s yield has shrunk to only one or two pounds for export.
In one form or another, cacao has been consumed for at least three millennia in Mesoamerica. The oldest find so far involves traces of an alcoholic beverage fermented from cacao pulp and found in pots dating to between 1400 and 1100 BC. Somewhat later, bowls holding a form of chocolate were buried with important Mayan individuals, and bore hieroglyphics we would translate as ka-ka-w. We also know that Mayans flavored their chocolate with other substances such as vanilla and chili—a seemingly unlikely combination that you would do well to remember.
Columbus captured a Mayan canoe carrying cacao beans in 1502, but it’s unclear that he knew what he had found. However, Cortés and his Spanish troops did, and despite the various concoctions’ extremely bitter taste, the soldiers came to be “addicted,” as a killjoy contemporary observed. (A clue to that addiction lies in the fact that cacao contains phenylethylamine, or PEA, a chemical that our body manufactures when we fall in love.) Cacao beans reached Spain in 1544 and the rest of Europe soon after.
With the introduction of cane sugar production, the sweet forms of chocolate that we know today became possible—at least for those who could afford them. And with growing demand, the tree’s cultivation spread throughout the West Indies and then to West Africa. Spanish colonists transplanted cacao seedlings in 1590 on Fernando Pó, an island known today as Bioko, but it would be more than two centuries before the Portuguese followed suit on the nearby islands of São Tomé and Principe.
Until the end of the eighteenth century, Europeans drank chocolate much as the Mesoamericans had, but some far-reaching changes were on the way. A Dutchman named van Houten developed a method of removing much of the fat, or “butter,” from the product, producing cocoa. (This process is still known as “Dutching.”) Next, experimenters found that they could mix the excess cocoa butter with ground beans, with the result that the British firm of Cadbury Brothers was turning out blocks of chocolate by 1842. In 1876 Daniel Peter of Switzerland developed milk chocolate—an invention picked up and manufactured in quantity by Henri Nestlé.
The Twentieth Century & Beyond
By that time, São Tomé and Principe were on the verge of becoming the world’s most important source of cocoa beans. In the early twentieth century, however, it was revealed that the Portuguese were practicing the equivalent of slavery, and Cadbury and most European firms stopped buying the islands’ beans. Fortunately, the cultivation of cacao trees had spread by then to the West African mainland, a region destined to become the world’s largest producer.
It’s no exaggeration to say that chocolate conquered the world in the nineteenth century. Much more recently we’ve seen the rise of artisan chocolates—bars and candies made with organic, single-origin beans and often eccentric flavorings. In addition, the percentage of cacao in many chocolates has risen, making for more intense flavors. (Of course, prices have gone up accordingly.) In the early twenty-first century, this food of the gods ranks as the third most valuable foodstuff in the world.
Maggie took the photo at the top of the post on our visit to Kauai in 2009, while the second image is an Aztec depiction of a ceremony involving a pitcher of cocoa. The postage stamp was issued in 1948 for use in the Portuguese colony of São Tomé and Principe, and the wrapper near the bottom is from a bar produced by the Barcelona firm of Blanxart.