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The Food of All the Gods

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Illustration by Mott Jordan

Chocolate--mood elevator, aphrodisiac, Cupid's sidekick--for its many devotées, it's the ultimate sensual nourishment

By Christina Waters

The ancient Mayans used it as money and Casanova used it as bait. Chocolate--the bitter fruit of a tropical tree--has the power, under the right circumstances, to soothe surging hormones and release endorphic states of well-being. During the Baroque, chocolate became the breakfast of choice for sensuous Catholics spurning the new Puritan stimulant, coffee. So high on the popular new drink were ladies of Spain that they instructed their servants to bring them hot chocolate even during Mass.

By the mid-17th century, the New World drink imported by conquistadors had made its way north to Germany and the Netherlands. Europeans, echoing the sentiments of Aztec chocoholics, pronounced chocolate the food of the gods. Scientific taxonomist Carl Linneaus classified the cocoa tree in the genus Theobroma--"divine food."

Hernando Cortés came to the New World in search of gold. But as far as many of us are concerned, his only defensible achievement was the retrieval of chocolate. Cultivated by the Maya as early as 600 CE, chocolate became known to the Old World in the early 16th century. Neither Socrates nor Shakespeare ever tasted it. For most of recorded time, it remained the private treat of Aztec and Mayan nobility. Aztec emperor Moctezuma was said to fortify himself with bowlfuls of chocolate brew before making nocturnal visits to his harem.

The brew that Aztec nobility enjoyed, by the way, contained cinnamon, chile powder, pepper and maize. It wasn't until the Spaniards utilized their own spices--vanilla and sugar--that the European-style hot chocolate drink was born.

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Even though Christopher Columbus actually had been the first to bring back cocoa beans on his fourth voyage to the New World in 1502, it was Cortés who made chocolate a household word. When Cortés and his gold-hungry crew arrived in 1519 in what would one day be Mexico City, they received a royal welcome. As part of the welcoming ceremonies, Cortés was invited to drink chocolate from a solid gold goblet. The double potency of this moment was not lost on the greedy entrepreneur, who sensed how highly the cocoa bean was prized by his soon-to-be-conquered hosts.

Back when the Picts and Celts were being subdued by the Romans, the Maya were busy cultivating the cacao tree in the fertile jungles of the Yucatan. Cocoa beans were considered valuable commodities and used as portable currency for trade transactions. By the time the Spaniards arrived, the average adult slave could be purchased for the price of 100 cocoa beans.

Cortés asked to see how the bean was cultivated, eventually writing back to Spain that chocolate was prized by the Aztecs for its strength-giving properties and that it would be a good idea for Spain to get into the chocolate business. Hernando quickly set about establishing his own cocoa plantation as a cash crop--no, it was not called "Hernando's Hideaway"--and when he traveled home in 1528, he brought cocoa beans and all the implements necessary for making the new chocolate drink, to impress his patrons. Pretty soon, cocoa plantations were established all over the Spanish colonial empire and the chocolate craze took hold of Spain.

Smuggling the Good Bean and Other Tales

The elusive property of Spanish nobility for close to 100 years, the secret of chocolate was finally smuggled out of the country in 1606 by an Italian, Antonio Carletti. And in 1615, it was brought to France as the most important wedding gift Princess Anna of Austria (who'd been raised in Spain) could have given to her new husband, Louis XIII. The French, it seems, have always been fashion leaders, and when the Princess began serving the drink at the French court, it became tout le rage.

Consumption of chocolate soon became an arbiter of taste, separating those who had arrived from the merely bourgeoisie. Manufacturers of fine porcelain began producing elaborate pots for cooking chocolate and beautiful sets in which to serve it. Madame de Pompadour, who tended to do everything in a big way, commissioned the most expensive porcelain chocolate pot ever created. All over the fine homes and salons of France, chocolate was on everybody's lips.

The first recorded chocolate tasting in England occurred in Oxford in 1650. And in 1657, an enterprising Frenchman crossed the English Channel and set up the first chocolate house in London. Thanks, however, to a high import duty on raw cocoa beans, chocolate remained a luxury available only to the upper crust of society. Of course, the English added their own spin to the history of chocolate--they added milk.

By the end of the 17th century, chocolate had spread all over Belgium, Austria, Germany and Switzerland. Eventually, it appeared in American in 1755, when cocoa beans from the West Indies arrived in Massachusetts. Entrepreneur C.J. Van Houten of Holland patented a means of making chocolate powder by removing much of the cocoa butter in chocolate.

The result was a partially defatted cocoa powder that was much more digestible and easily mixed with warm water than the Aztec chocolatl. It is the base for the hot chocolate we drink today.

Van Houten further refined the powder by alkalizing it, which rendered it darker in color and milder in flavor. This process results in "Dutch chocolate." Van Houten's extracted byproduct of cocoa butter could be turned into both white chocolate and a thin paste that could be molded. And voilà--the chocolate bar.

Meanwhile, in Switzerland, Daniel Peter experimented with mixtures of milk and chocolate formed into bars and soon teamed up with a Swiss firm that is known today as Nestlé. In 1879, another Swiss, Rodolphe Lindt, developed a revolutionary way of refining chocolate that allowed it to be poured into molds, thus making possible chocolate candies as we know them. In 1900, a Mr. Hershey began the business that would dominate American chocolate and put a little bit of heaven into the hands of every moviegoer in the USA.

All That Science Plus the Pleasure Principle Allows

Lately, modern science--always a juicy source of trivia--has revealed a chemical basis for the enduring association between chocolate and romance. In addition to containing the stimulants of theobromine and caffeine--hence its tendency to produce a burst of energy--chocolate contains a substance that promotes a sensation of well-being in the same manner as sexual satisfaction, recreating the feeling of being in love. In the romantic state, the chemical stimulant phenylethylamine is released in the brain. Chocolate also contains phenylethylamine and, when consumed, can create the same pleasurable physical sensation as love.

Conversely, when depressed or when abandoned by a loved one, phenylethylamines become blocked. That's why when we're sad we can find solace in a chocolate bar, which delivers soothing doses of the missing chemical. Experts speculate that the so-called "chocolate binge" might just be an attempt to repair a chemical imbalance caused by lack of phenylethylamine.

So there is some truth to the connection between love and chocolate, one that can actually create addictions in those who, for whatever reason, are chronically lacking the chemical phenylethylamine.

No wonder with each bite of chocolate we feel positively godlike.

And ready for love.

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From the May 9-15, 1996 issue of Metro Santa Cruz

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