Chocolate, food of the gods

Did you know the Aztecs were the first to use chocolate and it was considered a food only fit for the gods?

Dark chocolate pieces and strawberries.

Chocolate and strawberries.

Chocolate shavings and chocolate pieces.

The word chocolate is a combination of terms from the Aztecs meaning 'bitter water'. That's an odd thing, considering we typically associate chocolate with something sweet. But that sweetness is the result of modern processing techniques, not something inherent in chocolate. In the form the Aztecs and Mayans knew it, the hot liquid made from brewing the crushed bean of the cacao plant has plenty of alkaloids, making it bitter.

Nevertheless, even these ancient cultures viewed this plant as providing 'food for the gods'. Perhaps it was the lift they got from the Theobromine - similar to caffeine. Or maybe they had a little too much and felt the effects of the Anandamide, a compound similar to that found in marijuana. Or, it might have been the Phenethylamine, a natural amphetamine-like molecule. But, the most likely explanation is that chocolate just tastes great.

The Theobroma cacao plant is an evergreen that grows to around 20 ft high in near equatorial regions. The plant produces pods with beans that are dried, roasted and ground similar to the process used for coffee beans. The result is a viscous liquid, called chocolate liquor. The liquor is squeezed at high pressure to make cocoa butter and cocoa solids. Cocoa powder is the result of further grinding the cocoa solids.

Note the similarity of the words 'cacao' and 'cocoa'. No accident, but one refers to the tree or bean, the other to the product after processing.

Add a little sugar and blend everything in something called a conch, heat and cool properly in a process called tempering, and pretty soon you've got one of the world's favorite foods.

Whether it's in the form of antioxidant-rich dark chocolate, or even white chocolate that is chiefly cocoa butter with no cocoa solids, it is creamy, tasty and highly satisfying. Milk chocolate, the most popular variety falls somewhere in between, as a mixture of cocoa solids, milk solids and sugar.

But in every form, consumed in moderation, it's a healthy and delicious treat. It's recommended for astronauts and climbers, and forms part of the diet of most of the population on earth and beyond. Relatively simple to process though to make it well requires considerable art and experience, chocolate is found in almost every country.

It makes its way into recipes as diverse as chocolate ice cream, chili and chocolate martinis. Whether eaten in small chunks, or spread as a sauce on pork chops, chocolate is a favorite ingredient of cooks around the globe. As a hot cocoa brew, it's unbeatable.

But it even finds its way into foods that are not cooked at all. Raw chocolate is still consumed in various forms. It's used as a main ingredient in superfoods, raw foods and organic 'power' bars of all varieties.

It's a small wonder, given how chocolate can lift the mood of anyone feeling the blues. We race to chocolate when we're sad, and we gobble it down to celebrate our joy. It forms part of myths and rituals in many countries and participates in the happiness of those occasions.

It makes for the perfect dessert standing alone, and adds a touch of elegance when combined with a fine glass of wine.

No one needs to encourage anyone to try some fine chocolate. The trick is keeping them away from your stash. Hide some today.

Chocolate in ancient history

For centuries, cocoa has been used as a medicine to treat various ailments from coughing, to fever and fainting. The Aztecs thought it gave their warriors strength. Chocolate was revered more for its medicinal value than its delicious taste.

The Aztecs didn’t eat chocolate like we do today, in bar form; instead they drank it as a frothy beverage and believed it was a phenomenon of nature. Because it made them feel awake, strong and alert, chocolate became widely known as a food vital for health.

In Aztec culture, chocolate was mainly reserved for priests and the very wealthy. Those in public office bathed in it as it was thought to cure fatigue. A document published in 1590, written in the Aztec native language, showed that a mixture of cocoa, maize and herbs was used to cure fainting and fever. Soldiers were given cocoa because it was believed to strengthen them.

Spanish explorer Hernan Cortes discovered the magical drink when he arrived at the court of Aztec ruler Montezuma. He wrote back to the king of Spain saying he found a drink that “builds up resistance and fights fatigue”. Cortes took the cocoa beans back to Europe with him and the popularity of chocolate spread throughout Europe, mainly due to its medicinal value. Manuscripts dating as far back as the 16th century site over 100 medicinal uses for cocoa.

An English doctor from the early 1800’s prescribed chocolate for pregnant women. “Chocolate is the most excellent drink that is yet found. It is good alone to make up a breakfast, needing no other food, is beneficial to the body, and may be drunk by people of all ages, and is very good for women with child, since it nourishes the embryo, and prevents fainting fits," he wrote.

Swedish naturalist, Linneaus, gave the cacao tree its official name, Theobroma cacao, meaning Food of the Gods in 1753 due to the healing and strengthening power believed to be in chocolate.

Chocolate hasn’t gone unnoticed by the early Americans either. Thomas Jefferson, third president of the United States, was quoted as saying, "The superiority of chocolate, both for health and nourishment, will soon give it the preference over tea and coffee in America which it has in Spain."

In later centuries, milk and sugar were added to chocolate, reducing the medicinal value. Chocolate’s amazing taste overcame the health benefits and its medicinal values were soon forgotten. However, one person did not forget chocolate’s amazing health benefits and soon became famous because of the bars he made from cocoa. You may recognize the name; Milton Hershey. One of his early advertisements for a milk chocolate bar read, "Hershey's: More Sustaining Than Meat."