I might be a romance writer, but don’t expect any sloppy Valentine sentimentality from me. I despise artificial card-giving holidays, but I do admire chocolate any time of the year, and giving chocolate is the best part about this holiday.
Chocolate actually has a rather disturbing history, and if we want to skip past cute cherubs and Roman saints, we could argue that the Mayans substituting chocolate for blood offerings to the gods made real hearts the original basis for sharing chocolate hearts. But that’s probably stretching a point.
We know the Olmecs had cacao beans around 1000 BC but we have no idea what they did with them. It wasn’t until the Mayans came along and learned to mix cacao paste with spices and honey, then froth it by pouring it back and forth between two containers do we have the first known use of chocolate. The drink became so favored that cacao beans were used as money. Ten beans would buy a rabbit or a prostitute–an interesting price tag for human needs. The wealthy amassed fortunes in beans. Some clever crooks even came up with counterfeit beans using clay.
Even after the Aztecs captured the Mayans, cacao beans continued to be used as currency, and because cacao trees didn’t grow in their capital city, the beans had to be imported—or gathered as taxes. A pity the IRS won’t accept chocolate currency!
Then of course, the Spanish arrived. I think Montezuma deliberately served them the unflavored, unsweetened version of chocolate to scare them off and keep them out of his ten million beans because the Spanish despised the drink they were given. Unfortunately, the Spanish also conquered the Caribbean islands where sugar grew, and it doesn’t take a soldier long to figure adding sugar to a bitter drink might improve it.
Once chocolate hit Europe—still bitter—doctors began prescribing it as medicine for curing fevers and aiding digestion, presumably because anything that tastes bad has to be good for you. The church approved it for fasting nutrition—until one bishop was poisoned for not allowing his parishioners to carry chocolate to mass. As the only caffeine on the market at the time, chocolate became a phenomenon for the wealthy—those beans were still worth a lot. Chocolate houses developed like Starbucks today, except people actually read newspapers and discussed politics over their drinks.
To supply the growing demand for chocolate, Europe couldn’t rely on the Spaniards, so they developed slave plantations throughout Central America and Indonesia to produce beans—a faster growing, inferior quality that still constitutes most of the world’s production today. So more blood, sweat, and tears enter the chocolate equation.
In 1643, the Spanish Princess Maria Theresa gave Louis XIV of France an engagement gift of chocolate. We’re still talking the bitter beans, but by this time, chocolate was rumored to have erotic properties. Under the king’s influence, the power of chocolate as an aphrodisiac swept the French courts, appearing in art and literature. The Marquis de Sade reportedly used it to hide poisons and Casanova combined it with champagne for seduction. The wily king appointed a chocolatier to manufacture the powder, thus creating a nice income stream. I think we’re beginning to see the commercial pattern of chocolate here….
The powder used for hot chocolate was refined and produced throughout Europe and into the Americas in the 1700s, but it wasn’t until 1828 that the chocolate press was developed to squeeze out cocoa butter and improve consistency and taste. It wasn’t much longer after that the first solid chocolate was developed by a British confectioner, J.S. Fry and Sons. Everything after that was a matter of money, taste, and recipe.
And you know what? Those old physicians might have been on to something when they used chocolate to reduce fever and pain. Dark chocolate contains phenylethylamine and seratonin, mood enhancers naturally found in the human brain. And according to Arthur Agatston, a Miami-based cardiologist and author of The South Beach Diet, cocoa contains flavanols, which seem to have an aspirin-like affect that reduces inflammation and may help maintain a healthy cardiovascular system by relaxing blood vessels and preventing cholesterol build up. It is also an antioxidant.
So buy your honey some really dark chocolate and see if it won’t buy you some favors. It’s better than carving your heart out!