Today is Columbus Day. And we’re wrapping up our series of Daily Dispatches on New World foods with one of Christopher Columbus’ best-loved discoveries–chocolate.
Columbus first encountered it on July 10, 1502, during his fourth voyage, which took him to the north coast of South America.
Chocolate comes from the cacao tree, a tropical plant that originated in Central and South America. It rarely grows north of the Tropic of Cancer, as it requires a hot and humid climate.
The tree grows to heights of 16 to 26 feet with dense, year-round foliage. The fruits are oblong pods, each about six to eight inches long. And each pod contains 40 to 50 beans.
Originally, there were two varieties of cacao plant: the Criollo and the more bitter, purple Calabacillo. Today, farmers still cultivate hybrids of these two original varieties.
The Mayans and Aztecs prized their cacao beans. In fact, they used cacao beans as a means of exchange–a form of “cash.” Forty beans amounted to a countle. And up to 24,000 beans amounted to a carga.
In fact, the city of Tabasco paid Emperor Montezuma an annual tax of one carga. This supported his daily ration of 30 cups of chocolate, as well as 2,000 cups more for his court.
The Maya and Aztec peoples also used cacao beans to prepare foods and beverages.
The Aztecs pounded the roasted cacao beans in hot water and drank this mixture as a beverage. They sometimes sweetened and thickened the drink with honey and cornstarch, made from native corn. Or they made it spicy, with red, cayenne pepper–another native food. They called this beverage “chocolate,” a combination of the Aztec names choco for cacao and latl for water.
In 1519 and 1526, the explorer Hernan Cortez sent reports from Mexico about chocolate to Emperor Charles V of Spain.
During the invasion of Mexico, Cortez reported that chocolate was a good source of energy. He wrote, “A cup of this precious beverage would put a man in condition to make a whole day’s march without the need for other food.” Clearly, it was a real energy drink.
In fact, the energy chocolate conferred was entirely natural and calorie-free–not from any added sugar. Cacao contains theobromine, a stimulant similar to caffeine in coffee and theophylline in tea.
In 1528, Cortez sent cacao beans to Spain. Initially, the Spanish considered chocolate a perfect “pep pill.” It increased endurance and improved capacity for hard work. So shipments to Spain continued regularly.
Initially, the Catholic Church opposed chocolate consumption. They called it frivolous. And they forbade it during Lent and fast days. However, Cardinal Brancatio eventually pronounced it an essential beverage. And chocolate quickly became the national drink of Spain, as it was already in Mexico.
In the ensuing decades, Spain united and expanded as an Empire. This expansion happened largely because of its discoveries in the Americas, including its discovery of chocolate.
Interestingly, Spain forbade export of chocolate to other countries. So, of course, all the sovereigns of Europe wanted to marry Spanish royalty. Because, when Spanish princesses married other European royalty, they insisted on bringing along chocolate for themselves and their large entourages.
For example, Catherine of Aragon, the daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella (who had dispatched Columbus to the Americas) became the first wife of Henry VIII. She brought chocolate with her to England. And she kept the court in ample supply of this exotic delicacy. Perhaps this was one reason why she managed to keep her head.
As demand increased, cacao became rare and costly. And it aroused the interests of Dutch and English smugglers and privateers. Finally, in 1728, Philip V ceded Spain’s monopoly on chocolate to an international company. And chocolate became more widely available throughout Europe.
Before long, European powers took to cultivating the plant themselves in their tropical colonies. The French began cultivating the cacao tree in Haiti, Trinidad and Martinique. The British began its cultivation in Jamaica. And the Spanish began cultivating it in the Philippines. Cacao also became a leading commodity in the British and French colonies along the southern coast of West Africa. In Cote D’Ivoire, cacao even supplanted ivory as its prime export.
In 1753, the Dutch began using a press to extract the fat component from cacao beans. In fact, 50 percent of the cacao bean is fat. This process produced a chocolate powder, perfect for making the beverage. This device also led the way for the production of cocoa butter (which should more accurately be known as cacao butter).
Cocoa butter began to appear on the market in the mid-19th century. And cooks began to make solid chocolate by re-combining cocoa butter with powdered chocolate. Soon after, bakers began to use chocolate in their cakes and icing. And others used it to make ice creams and candies.
Enter Mr. Cadbury in Great Britain. Mr. Hershey in Pennsylvania. And the rest, as they say, is history.
In the 20th century, the milk chocolate candy bar became the most popular confection in the U.S. But the name is misleading. A typical milk chocolate bar contains much more sugar than milk or chocolate.
In fact, in a typical 1.5-ounce bar, you will find 24 grams of sugar. This certainly would have kept those Spanish Conquistadores going all day long.
Of course, as I’ve said before, you are better off eating bitter, dark chocolate. The more bitter the better. It contains less sugar. You can now find bars made with 60 to 80 percent dark chocolate. And you can even find authentic dark chocolate bars made with hot peppers.
Extensive research shows that dark chocolate is “good for just about whatever ails you.” It’s “choc-full” of beneficial antioxidants–as well as other beneficial ingredients–that significantly reduce the risk of cardiovascular diseases. They also support mental and cognitive activity. And have many other benefits as well.
So this Columbus Day, take a moment to enjoy all the fantastic foods that came to us from the Americas in just the last few hundred years. Especially dark chocolate. And on All Hallows Eve in a couple of weeks, consider giving out some dark chocolate to the little ghosts and goblins. It’s better for them!