By Anne Isham
Photography by Marc Brown
Chocolate is a wondrous, many-faceted food. On a basic level, it’s purported to make us younger, smarter, happier and healthier thanks to a wealth of antioxidants and nutrients and an intricate fat structure. But in a more complicated context, chocolate possesses the ability to meet many of our emotional needs—from soothing frustrations, to taking the edge off the disappointment of dysfunctional relationships. Without a doubt, though, chocolate can be one of the most reliable means of charming friends, family and even our enemies.
The cacao bean, from which chocolate is born, has a rich and turbulent history—often cited as responsible for the epic battles of the Toltec, Aztec, Maya and Inca peoples, as well as the more modern corporate battles of Cadbury, Hershey and Mars or Valrhona and Amedei. The Olmecs of Central America began grinding cacao beans over 3100 years ago to produce a beer-like brew that has evolved into what we now call chocolate. The Aztecs called it Xocoatl. Since then, every society that has made chocolate has, initially, tried to reserve it for royalty or the nobility, and every civilization has named it something that translates to “food of the Gods.” In addition, every chocolate-consuming civilization has believed it to possess medicinal and even aphrodisiacal qualities.
At the end of the 15th century, just before Europeans arrived in the New World, Moctezuma controlled all cacao crops. At the time, the Aztecs were awaiting the return of the god Quetzalcoatl, who was foretold to be returning in the form of a bearded white man. When Hernán Cortés arrived from Spain, the Aztecs assumed he was the returning god and treated him as a messiah, plying him with lavish gifts, including a cacao plantation.
Cortés, the first European to experience the cacao bean, immediately recognized its military advantage—cacao could sustain an army in the field well enough for them to march and do battle. On returning to Spain, he reported to King Carlos that “this divine drink builds up resistance and fights fatigue. A cup of this precious drink enables a man to walk for a whole day without food.”
The Spanish king rewarded Cortés with a commission to extend cacao production around the world. The Spaniards tried to keep this world-changing discovery to themselves and were successful for 100 years, but the secret eventually escaped through two sources. One was the church—many of the cacao plantations were run by Jesuit missionaries. Pedro Mártir de Anglería, one of the Jesuits, dubbed the cacao beans “pecuniary almonds . . . blessed money, which exempts its possessors from avarice, since it cannot be hoarded or hidden under ground.” Interestingly, the cacao bean was indeed used as a medium of exchange by the Aztecs and Maya and was also referred to as “happy money.” Later, nuns would also share the secrets of cacao cultivation and production with French and Italian missionaries.
The second source of distribution was Spanish princesses, each of whom had her own private chocolatier. As they were packed off to marry kings and princes all over Europe, the princesses carried their chocolate habits with them, and spread the wonders of chocolate throughout the royal courts of Europe.
At one point, a Spanish bishop tried to prohibit the ladies from having hot chocolate served to them in church during mass. Services in those days ran on for hours, and the ladies had their maids brew hot chocolate and bring it to them on trays as they stood or knelt in pious observation of the holy services. The bishop was eventually silenced by the women, who, with the help of his page, put poison in the bishop’s own chocolate.
The popularity of chocolate continued to grow rapidly. When Ponce de León spent so many years wandering through what is now Florida searching for the fountain of youth, maybe he was looking for the wrong liquid. Perhaps the rumors of a magic fountain in the New World referred to chocolate, which was still a drink at that time, instead of water. And on October 25, 1671, the French Marquise de Sévigné wrote in a letter to her daughter, “I have reconciled myself to chocolate, I took it the day before yesterday to digest my dinner, to have a good meal, and I took it yesterday to nourish me so that I could fast until evening . . . I take it to soothe me to sleep and to wake me . . . That is what I like about chocolate: it acts according to my intention.”
Fast-forwarding to the 20th century, the U.S. government commissioned Hershey to produce the “D ration” chocolate for use during World War II. It was to be an emergency ration—able to withstand extremes of heat, cold and humidity—and it was to taste no better than a boiled potato. This last requirement was to prevent the soldiers from eating it immediately as they marched out of camp, thus assuring it would be on hand to sustain them in emergencies.
Clearly, from the early days as an enticing brew to the endless edible options of the present day, chocolate continues to be recognized, sought after and lauded for its health-promoting and status-enhancing qualities. Long live the King.
For an in-depth history of chocolate, see The True History of Chocolate by Sophie D. and Michael D. Coe and The Emperors of Chocolate by Joël Glenn Brenner.
COOKING WITH CHOCOLATE
The most versatile form of chocolate is the simple ganache, which consists of roughly equal parts dark chocolate and cream. Use it as a frosting or a dip for fruit, or dab it on tortilla chips, then sprinkle with nuts, dried fruit, a grating of white chocolate and perhaps tiny marshmallows. A quick pass under the broiler and, voila, chocolate nachos! You can spread it on bread or add a dollop to your porridge, but whatever you do with it, ganache will make the mediocre suddenly fabulous.
One handy way to use ganache is as a delicious shell for your favorite chocolate cake. When the cake is out of the oven and just cooled, spread a thin layer of fresh ganache over each layer to seal in the moisture. Before the ganache sets completely, wrap each layer separately in plastic wrap, followed by aluminum foil, then freeze until needed. (I usually return each layer, wrapped in plastic, to its pan for the initial freezing to retain its proper shape.) When you’re ready to serve the cake, move it from the freezer to the refrigerator the night before. A few hours before serving, frost and decorate the cake. You can use just about any icing over the ganache.
The following are two variations on basic ganache. The first, Chocolate Ginger Ganache, is the simplest possible form of ganache. Chocolate Caramel Ganache, or Spoon Fudge, is a bit more complicated, but well worth the effort. Either of these can be poured over a cake as icing or whipped into a mousse. The ganache can be chilled and rolled into truffles or kept warm and used as a dip.