Tlaquetzalli” – ‘precious thing’- is how the Aztecs referred to fine chocolate.


Long before the cacao rich, exotically flavoured Valrohnas, Scharffen Bergers, Green and Black’s and Mast Brothersbars of impeccable pedigree, crafted from superior beans that sit in smug secrecy in various corners in my cupboards, there was just that one, rather small rectangle with a purple wrapper. Two stark white glasses of milk poured themselves out on the cover, and silver foil covered the slab of Cadbury’s Dairy Milk – adored, coveted and longed for throughout my childhood. It made its appearance in my young life in many guises – a bribe; a reward; a gift; a placebo. A single square, locked securely against the roof of your mouth, waiting for that warm, slow flood of molten, chocolaty silk and all the cares of the world faded away. Before you could quite capture the moment, it was gone, leaving you longing for more. The Aztecs knew what they were talking about.

The purple- wrapped wonder that was my introduction to the world of chocolatehad a history going back to the 19th century, when the British manufacturers, Cadburyand Sons,began making the commercial eating bar. But Theobroma cacao, meaning ‘the food of the gods’, the botanical name for the plant that produces cacao pods, the source of all chocolate, has a timeline stretching back three thousand years,linking it to some of the oldest civilizations in the world – the Olmecs, the Mayas, the Toltecs and Aztecs.Throughout the greater part of its history, when it was drunk, rather than eaten, chocolate belonged to the gods, royalty, rulers and the elite. Ancient texts show Mayan gods holding cacao pods and amongst the Aztecs its consumption was restricted to rulers, the nobility, merchants and significantly, warriors. Its refreshing and nourishing qualities made it a standard part of military rations, packaged into pellets and wafers that could be carried into battle. The food of the gods was a luxurious, foam topped drink, flavoured in ways that would be familiar to the great modern chocolate houses of Bonnat, Bernachon, Guittard and La Maison du Chocolat.

Honey, exotic, fragrant flowers, green vanilla, dried, ground chili peppers and allspice were blended into chocolate drunk out of beautifully crafted and decorated bowls and gourds. The prized, foamy head that topped the drink was whipped up by pouring it from a height or with stirrers made of tortoise shell; or later, the grooved wooden beater known as a molinillo. It was served at Maya betrothal ceremonies and weddings and dead noblemen were buried with chocolate drinks to ease their way into the next world. Cacao beans were currency across the region until well after the coming of the Spaniards; a single turkey egg, for instance was worth three beans. Cacao beans and special flowers with which to spice chocolate were carried in the luggage of merchants along with jade, gold, shells, tropical bird feathers in dazzling colours, jewels. With such a value placed on it, that the cacao bean was also frequently counterfeited in Aztec times.

Europe’s first acquaintance with cacao was dramatic butit would be some years before it made an impact on the markets at home.Guanaja is the name of an iconic, modern chocolate bar, but also the place where the historic encounter between Christopher Columbus and a Maya trading canoe took place. On 15thAugust 1502, Columbus captured a canoe rowed by slaves, with women, children and a cargo on board. In search of gold and obviously disappointed, he carelessly brushed aside as ‘black almonds’, the cargo of cacao beans, the wealth of the Aztec world that would soon make many men their fortunes.

Theobroma cacao grows in a belt roughly 20 degrees North and South of the Equator and is thought to have had its origins in the Amazon basin. Three essential varieties form the basis of chocolate consumption across the world. The prized Criollo, which is delicate and temperamental, produces very high quality, fruity, aromatic beans; Forastero is more tannic and robust, and Trinitario, which is a natural hybrid. The temperature and humidity of a rainforest with layers of forest waste breeds midges, which help pollinate the cacao flowers that grow directly from pads on the trunk. The Aztecs harvested their cacao from steaming tropical forests, while ours comes from plantations, but the first steps the pods go through towards becoming chocolatehave scarcely changed.The ripe fruits, which range from beige to dark brown, purple and violet have to be carefully sliced from the trees and cut open. The beans – 30 – 40 of them- are removed from the white pulp and the entire mass placed in pits covered with banana leaves, to ferment, and germinate. The beans darken and it is at this moment, that the taste of chocolate as we recognize it, is created. Theyare dried and roasted, the outer husks removed, leaving the all important ‘nibs’ which have become a favourite with many artisanal chocolatiers, who use them in novel ways. The nibs, hand ground on metates in ancient times, are mechanically crushed into a paste known as chocolate liquor. To produce a high quality chocolate, the liquor is worked on again to make it very smooth. Additional cocoa butter may be added and, in a process known as conching, invented by Rudolphe Lindt, it is beaten, sometimes for several days, into a very smooth and silky mass.Tempering is another crucial step in the creation of quality chocolate, where it is heated, cooled and reheated, to stabilize the crystals of cocoa butter for a shiny finish and crisp break. Prized cocoa butter is extracted to leave a dry cake that becomes cocoa powder; a process invented by Johannes Van Houten, in 1828 – the butter is sold to the cosmetic industry, or back to the chocolate industry. It is one of the key elements in high quality chocolate, which needs to contain 55 – 75 % cocoa solids. Ganache has the highest concentrations of this luxurious product. Contrary to common perceptions, a very dark colour indicates a mediocre chocolate. High quality shows in “mahogany highlights, clean breaks, a rapid and uniform melting in the mouth and finally, a complex, long lasting flavour.”

The dazzling court of Emperor Motecuhzoma served quantities of foaming cacao to the nobility and there were unimaginably vast stores of beans in Royal warehouses that were looted when the Aztec empire fell. The Spaniards built their colonies on the ruins of the Aztec civilization, growing rich on the export of the drink they once hated. Monasteries and convents were the unofficial channels by which chocolate, known to the Aztecs as cacahuatl, travelled, arriving in Europe just before tea and coffee, renamed chocolate, to suit Spanish phonetics. Initially, like coffee, chocolate wastaken for its medicinal properties, but before long it was being drunk in the palaces, villas and courts of Europe, and elaborate accessories for its consumption were invented. The early 17th century chocolate drinking craze fuelled the slave trade and rich plantations across central and South America with tragic consequences for native Indian populations, who were practically wiped out.

“ By the close of the 17th century,” wrote Sophie and Michael Coe, “ when the fat, decadent Cosimo III de’ Medici was contentedly sipping his perfumed chocolate, only 10 percent of the original Indian population of the Americas had survived….” Such a catastrophe did nothing to diminish the demand for chocolate. Although it was quickly overthrown by coffee as the preferred drink, it began to make its way in the world as ‘eating chocolate’ by the mid 19th century, thanks to enterprising businessmen like J.S Fry & Sons. Their rivals, the Cadbury family made the first chocolate box a few years later. Henri Nestlé and Daniel Peter created the first milk chocolates, which, though enormously popular, would never have the same cachet as the bars of dark chocolate.The Swiss, the Italians, the Spanish and the French all added their innovations to the world of chocolate, which grew prodigiously – the world loved chocolate, and would continue to do so – at 50 billion dollars a year, the chocolate industry is still growing.

Modern chocolatiers treat cacao beans and their individual properties with a reverence that would have made perfect sense to the Olmecs, Mayas and Aztecs. Purists, who can identify terroir in the bean in much the same way as wine experts, begin with raw cacao beans, carefully sourced from selected locales and blend them to create ‘crus’. Others opt for single bean origins, working to highlight the unique qualities of the bean. Each shipment of beans to Valrohna is tested by a panel of ten people, taking in acidity, bitterness and tasting notes, just a few criteria on a long list. For the experts, chocolate is judged on its ‘head notes’ or the initial taste; the ‘heart notes’ which touch on the subtle undertones and the persistence, which leaves you with the lingering aftertaste. Chuao from Venezuela, Sambirano from Madagascar and Arriaba from Madagascar are some of the most highly prized beans. Connoisseurs speak of Guanaja, Manjari and Pur Caraibe.One of the most engaging qualities of chocolate is its ability to display subtle nuances when paired with different ingredients. Nehaus, Leonidas and Bonnat have been creating masterpiecesfor generations – silky pralinés, filled with fruit, hazelnuts and endless possibilities. Fillings of jasmine flowers, Chinese tea leaves and spices tease out the complexities of the bean, creating new and beautiful harmonies.

Experts have begun to break down the experience of chocolate into a series of assessments and sophisticated terminology that seems to drain it of all its emotion, unlikethe Aztecs, who sensibly retained the mystique of the cacao bean, wrapping it up in myth and legend. But chocolate is an old flame, dark, silky and seductive, not so easily pinned down by logic. I love my bars of Sharffen Berger Chocolate Maker’s Series with a passion; individually named, the distinctive wrappers carry details of beans,blends and tasting notes. I read the attractive labels carefully, but with the first bite, it is just the intensity of the taste, texture and experience that I seek, not an analysis.“ Dark chocolate,” wrote Sophie and Michael Coe, “is an incredibly complex substance known to contain more than 400 and possibly 500 compounds….”Chocolate contains theobromine, a stimulant,caffeine and important antioxidants: is it a mood – enhancer, anti- depressant or an aphrodisiac? Results of research are confusing and conflicting, and ultimately, you decide what chocolate does for you. The luxurious, sensual experience you invoke by taking a bite of good quality chocolate and allowing it to melt in your mouth is intensely personal, elusive. In 1933, the then Rowntree& Co. created a box of chocolates that captured the romance and mystery of the food of the gods, linking it inextricably linked with the art of seduction. They called it Black Magic. It caught the public imagination and inspired an advertising campaign that lasted into the 1960’s with Steve Hudson’s voice saying that unforgettable line:“Who knows the secret of the Black Magic Box?”

Image Credits: Nithin Sagi

Kaveri Ponnapa

Kaveri Ponnapa is a widely published independent writer on food, wine and heritage, based in Bengaluru. Her features appear in leading publications. She graduated with a Master’s Degree in Social Anthropology from the School of Oriental and African Studies, London.

  1. Zoe Perrett says:

    Brilliant read – and so agree! There’s always room for new learnings, but an excellent eating experience speaks its own delicious volumes.

    1. kaveri ponnapa says:

      Hello Zoe, thanks for visiting this page, I’m so pleased that you enjoyed the article. Yes,a really great eating experience stays with us for years after it is over – if not forever – which is possibly why we spend so much time thinking about, creating and consuming food! Best wishes, Kaveri

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