It boosts the mood! Enhances vitality! Combats anxiety, stress, and pain! Robust men love it!
Today when talking about chocolate we generally think of it in its solid bar form but for the majority of its long and illustrious history, it was consumed as a beverage. In fact, solid chocolate wasn’t invented until 1839.
Consumed by Olmecs, Mayans, and Aztecs the ancient Mesoamericans couldn’t get enough chocolate. Considered a sacred beverage it was used during celebrations and religious ceremonies and was thought to lend the drinker strength. In fact, it was common practice to give a gourd of chocolate tinged with sacrificial blood to the human offerings too upset by their imminent doom to join in the festive dancing carried out before the murderous climax of the sacrifice.
Cacao was first domesticated by the Olmecs who passed it down to the Mayans who continued the practice of cultivating the beans. Typically mixing it with spicy peppers and wine they drank it hot, trading it to the Aztecs who also added flavorings like ground flowers and vanilla but preferred consuming it cold. Both people enjoyed the beverage frothy, achieving the desired foam by pouring the mixture back and forth from a bowl held high into another far below it.
Cacao beans were used as a form of currency among the ancient Mesoamericans. One cacao bean could get you a tamale, 100 a turkey hen, and the possessor of 1000 beans?! Ten turkey hens! Because it was both food and legal tender, drinking chocolate was reserved only for those who could afford it and became an elite libation.
Montezuma’s Insatiable Thirst
Unable to cultivate cacao themselves the Aztec ruler, Montezuma II, kept himself well supplied by demanding cacao beans as tribute from conquered peoples. It is said that Montezuma kept a massive storehouse of the beans, and drank 50 golden cups of the stuff a day decreeing that only those men brave enough to face battle would be permitted to drink it. Now not only did you have to be massively wealthy in order to indulge your cocoa habit but also fearless. Drinking chocolate eventually becoming a regular part of military rations among the Aztecs.
An excerpt from the diary of one of Cortez’s lieutenants Bernal Diaz del Castillo affirms Montezuma’s rather indulgent practice.
“Fruit of all kinds that the country produced were laid before him; he ate very little, but from time to time a liquor prepared from cocoa, and of an aphrodisiac nature, as we were told, was presented to him in golden cups… I observed a number of jars, above fifty, brought in, filled with foaming chocolate.”
The belief that chocolate was a powerful elixir that lent its drinker extra virility and strength seems to have made its way into European and US thinking as well and may explain the application of including chocolate or pressed cakes of cocoa powder in military rations, an operation practiced all the way up to the Vietnam war. During the Revolutionary War, chocolate was sometimes even used in lieu of wages.
Chocolate in Europe
Chocolate first made its way to Europe via the Spanish conquistadors who brought it back from the America’s in the 14th century. Spain developed such an enthusiasm for the drink that the pope was asked to change the rules regarding fasting to exclude chocolate. (Today it is still common to see cups of hot chocolate at the breakfast table in Spain, a practice especially popular in Madrid.)
Unwilling to share their new discovery Spain kept hot chocolate under wraps for almost a century before news of it began to spread across Europe. As the new drink’s popularity moved throughout the continent, variations emerged as people began to add flavors from classics like vanilla and sugar to more exotic seasonings like Ambergris, a secretion from the intestines of the sperm whale, and Himalayan deer musk! The mutation of hot chocolate had begun.
A fashionable drink throughout Europe hot chocolate was prized not only for its taste but also for both its nutritional and medicinal properties. Rumored to be Casanova’s drink of choice, it was also said to be a potent aphrodisiac.
The Creation of Cocoa Powder and the First Instant Breakfast
By 1828 the Dutch chemist Conrad van Houten found a way to extract most of the cocoa butter from cacao nibs by dint of a hydraulic press and created powdered chocolate. In the 18th century, we find that chocolate was commonly sold as a half cocoa-half sugar cake flavored with vanilla and cinnamon. These cakes were not so much a delight, as an emergency meal.
“When one is in a hurry to leave one’s lodgings, or when during travel one does not have the time to make it into a drink, one can simply eat a tablet of one ounce and drink a cup [of water] on top of that, and let the stomach churn to dissolve this impromptu breakfast.”
The idea of having to rely on the “churnings” of one’s stomach to prepare breakfast sounds like guaranteed discomfort and I’m sure results in chronic dyspepsia.
The Difference between Hot Chocolate and Hot Cocoa
Though often used interchangeably hot chocolate and hot cocoa are two very different things. And the deciding factor rests with which form of chocolate you use.
Hot cocoa is generally a thin mixture requiring little more than cocoa powder, (be it the natural or dutched varieties) water or milk, and a sweetening agent, i.e. sugar, honey, maple syrup etc. Whereas hot chocolate is made with solid chocolate, shaved or chopped fine to ensure quick melting. Because of the additional fat content hot chocolate or, drinking chocolate as it is often called, is generally very rich, thicker, and often times less sweet than hot cocoa.
Hot Cocoa = Cocoa Powder + Water/Milk + Sweetener
Hot Chocolate = Solid Chocolate + Water/Milk + Sweetener
The Benefits of Consuming Chocolate
Studies have shown that dark chocolate contains three times more flavonoids than wine or green tea. Because cocoa powder is more concentrated than solid chocolate, it contains even more. However, this does not apply to dutched cocoa powder as the alkalizing process inherent to it strips 60-80% of the flavonoids. So while melting a bar of chocolate to make your cocoa may yield a thicker, richer result, cocoa powder is more beneficial health wise.
Scientists have proven that people don’t absorb all the health giving properties of chocolate when ingested alongside dairy. So using a dairy free alternative like coconut or almond milk yields the greatest health benefits. That means no more pads of butter on top of your hot chocolate!
Here is one of Italy’s oldest recipes for hot chocolate. Dating back to 1632 this chocolate has a royal background, created for the refined palates of the Bentivoglio Dukes of Bologna. This recipe is excellent on a cold autumn morning to help take the chill off the day. With a wonderful citrusy lift from the orange zest and a rich punch of chocolate, this recipe has stood the test of time, and for good reason.
“Animal crackers, and cocoa to drink
That is the finest of suppers, I think
When I’m grown up and can have what I please,
I think I shall always insist upon these.”
Italy’s Royal Hot Chocolate
1-1/2 teaspoons ground allspice
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon fresh-ground black pepper
1/2 cup sugar
the zest of one orange
3 cups water, or milk (chef’s choice)
12 ounces bittersweet chocolate (70% or greater)
For the quick method:
combine all ingredients but the chocolate in a saucepan. Bring the mixture up to a boil then drop to a simmer for two minutes. Take off the heat and add your chopped chocolate. Allow the chocolate to sit undisturbed for a few minutes to soften before whisking it all together. Pour through a strainer and serve it forth.
For the long method:
Being sure to use milk and not the watery alternative. Combine all ingredients, except the chocolate, in a jar and place in the refrigerator. Covered for anywhere from 12-72 hours. This infuses the milk with all those wonderful spices and really adds depth to the flavor of your hot chocolate. When ready to make, pour the ingredients into a saucepan and proceed as normal.