Thursday, 22 October 2009

The Story of Chocolate

From Foods America Gave the World 1937 by A. Hyatt Verrill
Digitized by Doug Frizzle October 2009

WHEN Hernando Cortez and his little army of Spaniards were conquering Mexico they found the Aztecs using a strange beverage which they called cacaoquahitl made from the seeds of a tree. They also had another, even richer drink, as well as confections, made from the same seeds which was known as chocolatl. As the Aztec words were far too difficult for the Spaniards to pronounce they changed them to cacao and chocolate and so they have been known ever since.
So highly esteemed was cacao that in many parts of Mexico the seeds were used as money, and the beverages were so costly that only royalty and the members of the nobility could afford to use cacao and chocolate. The Emperor Montezuma was inordinately fond of the clear unsweetened cacao drink. Bernal Diaz who was a member of Cortez's army and who wrote a wonderful account of the conquest entitled La Verdad Historia de la Conquista de Nueva Espana or The True History of the Conquest of New Spain, states that Montezuma drank at least fifty cupfuls of cacao each day while his household consumed two thousand more. At first the Spaniards did not like the cacao which was made from the dried and roasted seeds boiled in water like coffee, but they took kindly to the thicker chocolate sweetened with honey and flavored with spices and vanilla. They discovered, however, that the cacao was a most nutritious beverage and very refreshing, relieving fatigue and "pepping" them up, and very soon they were drinking it almost as liberally as the Aztecs.
A few years after Cortez had conquered Mexico and had destroyed the Aztec Empire, Francisco Pizarro set forth to conquer the great Incan Empire in Peru, and there in South America, he found the Incan people using the same cacao and chocolate that Cortez had found in use among the Aztecs in Mexico. The Incans called the seeds and the drink made from them cacahua which was far nearer the Spaniards' cacao than was the Aztecs' cacaoquahitl. In Peru the seeds were not used as money, partly because there was no form of money in the communistic Incan Empire, and partly because the beanlike seeds were far more common and less valuable than in Mexico, so that even the common people of the highlands and interior towns used both cacao and chocolate freely (Fig. 1, chocolate cup from pre-Incan tomb at Nasca, Peru, showing a man holding cacao pods).
In all probability it never occurred to the Spaniards that it was rather remarkable that both the Aztecs and the Incans should have such similar names for the seeds which both races prepared and used in the same ways. But even if it did strike some of them as a bit strange, the Dons were far too busy robbing the Incans of their treasures, and enslaving and slaughtering the people, to bother about such matters as edible and drinkable food plants. Perhaps, even had they asked about the cacao and the Incans' traditions of its origin and history, they would have learned nothing of value; but on the other hand, at that time the Peruvian people may have possessed a real knowledge of the origin of cacao and many others of their cultivated plants. If so, that knowledge was forever lost to the world, and we of today cannot be at all certain whether the Peruvian or the Mexican or the Central American races were the first to cultivate and use cacao. But as the only wild cacao trees which might be the direct ancestors of the cultivated species, are found in the Guianas and northern South America adjacent to the old Incan and pre-Incan territory, it would seem probable that cacao was still another of the important American foods which the Peruvian Indians gave the world and that from Peru the seeds were carried northward into Central America and Mexico.
No doubt you wonder why it is that if the real name of the seeds and the beverage is cacao, we usually speak of "cocoa". But it is just another example of the Anglo-Saxons' strange habit of transposing letters and twisting foreign names about. For some inexplicable reason the early British voyagers and traders changed cacao to cocoa and then to scramble names still more, changed the Spaniards' coco, their name for the coconut, to cocoa-nut while to make matters still more confusing there is the plant called coca from which the cocaine is obtained.
Although today the term cocoa should be applied only to the prepared and ground seeds and the beverage made from them, the planters in the British West Indies always call their cacao groves cocoa walks. As Dr. Barrett so aptly puts it, the Trinidad merchant sells "coker-nuts" and cacao and buys Venezuelan cocos and local cocoa beans. But after all what's in a name?
Regardless of whether we call them by their correct name of cacao or by the Britishers' version, cocoa, the preparation of the seeds or beans is a most interesting process.
To a person who has never before seen a cacao tree in fruit it is a most remarkable sight, for the tiny pinkish flowers sprout directly from the bark of the trunk and limbs and form great rough red, green, yellow or purple fruits or pods covering the branches and main trunk of the tree (Fig. 2 and Frontispiece). As one northerner remarked when he first saw cacao trees, "they look like small beech trees with squashes hung on the trunks". Unlike squashes, however, the fruits or pods are not edible, but are filled with a whitish, sweet, slimy mucilaginous material enclosing numerous large seeds or "beans", which are fairly soft and are pinkish or purplish in color (Fig. 3).
The pods are gathered as fast as they ripen and are opened on the spot, being cut transversely in half with a blow of a machete, the slimy contents and seeds being emptied into boxes or trays to be carried to the fermentation sheds. The process of fermentation or "sweating" is essential and much of the quality of the "beans" of commerce depends upon it, for if not sweated sufficiently they will have the flavor of raw potatoes and are liable to deteriorate or mildew, while if over fermented they may be completely ruined. Although there are various methods of fermenting the beans, some growers dumping the slimy mass containing the seeds into bins or vats, others placing the contents of the pods on wooden gratings, while the owners of small groves of trees are often content to use empty kerosene-tin cases or to cover the seeds with leaves, yet the result is the same. In a few days the thick slimy pulp sours and ferments and runs off in a semi-fluid state so that the seeds or beans are easily separated from it.
Planters disagree as to whether it is preferable to wash the beans before drying them or to place them on the drying trays without washing, and both methods are followed. In order to dry the beans equally and thoroughly they must constantly be raked over and protected from rain, and while the larger estates are provided with huge drying trays equipped with tracks and wheels so they may quickly be run under a shed in case of a shower, and at night, while others use artificial heat for drying, there are many thousands of tons of cacao beans dried on small trays or even on cowhides spread upon the ground, often on the sidewalks or streets of the villages and towns. It is a common sight to see hundreds of trays and hides covered with cacao beans drying in the sunshine by the roadside and with sheep, dogs, fowls and other live-stock walking over them. But as in the preparation of the beans for cocoa the outer skin or shell is removed, this unhygienic condition of affairs need not trouble one, even though the final treatment or "polishing" of the beans is accomplished by having barefooted negroes, Hindus or Indians tread and shuffle the beans about with their feet. Very often red clay mixed with water is sprinkled over the beans during the "dancing" process. This imparts a fine color and polish to the beans and also protects them from mold and mildew.
When at last the beans have been properly cured they are packed for shipment in sacks containing two hundred pounds each. At the factories the beans are graded and selected, for cacao beans from various places are as different in flavor and qualities as are coffee beans and a definite proportion of each must be blended to insure uniform results.
The first step in the process of manufacture is roasting, after which the beans are de-hulled by machinery and pass to the "nibber" machine which breaks them into various sized pieces and at the same time removes the germ, or "chit" as it is called, of each bean. They are then screened or sifted and the various beans blended, after which they are run through the grinders whence they issue in a thick creamy paste known as "liquor". This liquor is then placed in the "conching" cylinder where it is beaten and churned for several hours to produce a smooth cacao cream. While still warm this is run into molds to form cakes which we know as chocolate. By removing the fatty oils or "cocoa butter" from the chocolate and pulverizing the remainder, cocoa is prepared, while the husks when pulverized are known as broma. Formerly, large quantities of the unground cocoa shells were sold and were used as a cheap substitute for cocoa, but nowadays good cocoa and chocolate are so cheap that there is little demand for the shells and most of them are used in making cattle feed.
Of course the old Aztecs and Incas did not put their cacao beans through this long process. Their only machines were mortars and grinding stones, but with these primitive utensils they accomplished nearly the same results as we accomplish with all our expensive and wonderfully designed machinery. To be sure, the Indians' hand-prepared chocolate is not so fine in texture as that we manufacture and their beverage is usually filled with bits of the broken seeds which have escaped being pulverized in the stone or wooden mortars. But the taste is much the same—oftentimes better—than the products of our factories and is just as nourishing and as stimulating. It may seem strange to speak of cocoa and chocolate as stimulants, but as a matter of fact they are far more stimulating than coffee, for cacao contains twice as much stimulant, in the form of theobromine, as most coffees have in the form of the similar caffein.
But did anyone ever hear of cocoa being accused of keeping people awake? Yet many, I might say most, persons believe that coffee taken at night will cause sleeplessness, and they blame the caffein it contains for keeping them awake, although they drink cocoa or chocolate with the idea that it will induce restful sleep. In fact there are certain brands of coffees which are widely advertised and sold because, so it is claimed, the greater portion of the caffein has been removed and they will not cause insomnia. But I do not think any manufacturer has ever thought of increasing the sales of cocoa or chocolate by announcing that the theobromine has been taken from them. Strange, is it not?
Both cocoa and chocolate are far more widely used than most persons realize, over three hundred million people consuming over half a million tons of cacao beans every year, and although the cacao tree is a truly American plant, more than half the world's cacao crop is produced in Africa.
Next to coffee and tea, cocoa is the world's most popular food beverage, but there are millions of persons who prefer still other vegetable drinks which are almost unknown to us, and two of the most important of these, described in the next chapter, are strictly American.

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As an armed forces brat, we lived in Rockcliff (Ottawa), Namao (Edmonton), Southport (Portage La Prairie), Manitoba, and Dad retired to St. Margaret's Bay, NS.
Working with the Federal Govenment for 25 years, Canadian Hydrographic Service, mostly. Now married to Gail Kelly, with two grown children, Luke and Denyse. Retired to my woodlot at Stillwater Lake, NS, on the rainy days I study the life and work of A. Hyatt Verrill 1871-1954.