Think the connection of chocolate to Valentine’s Day is just artificial commercial hype? You may be right. But why don’t we dance quickly through the history of chocolate, and see if we can find out why we link it to love.
The very word — mmmmmm, chocolate — comes from the Aztec word xocolatl, meaning “bitter water.” And the Aztecs associated chocolate with their goddess of fertility, Xochiquetzal. There — you see? Love and chocolate. The two go together. This is an excellent start.
And the stuff has been around forever. Well, about 3500 years, anyway. The cacao plant started being cultivated in what we now call Central America, sometime between 1100 and 1400 BCE, when the pulp of the chocolate fruit (rather than the bean, which is the big deal today) was used to make a fermented beverage.
There ya go. The first hint of combining chocolate and alcohol. Though perhaps we’d prefer wine today, rather than some mere “fermented beverage.” But let us dance on…
Walzing slowly and leisurely over the next 3000 years, we see that cacao beans became a valuable trade commodity, even used as a form of currency and tribute payment. In later uses, it was still made into a drink, but this time using the bean. And it was often drunk with chili flavouring.
Hm. Romantic or…not?
Enter the European explorers, and the tempo really picks up as we start a fast dance, heading toward the chocolate we know today. Christopher Columbus first took a few beans back to the court of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, the patrons for his voyages, but about 90 years later, cacao came to Europe in earnest (to Spain, primarily) to be used commercially.
And that’s when it started inching closer to a form we might begin to recognize as chocolate now. Europeans mostly abandoned the use of chili in the drink, replacing it with vanilla (another spice that had come from Central America), adding sugar and milk to counteract the bitterness.
Now we begin a sprightly court dance as, about a century later, Englishman Hans Sloane, President of the Royal Society and a founder of the British Museum, created the milk-and-chocolate recipe, which he later sold to the Cadbury brothers. And suddenly we encounter a name we really associate with chocolate. Almost there!
Our dance gets more lively, the chocolates we would recognize finally arriving with the Industrial Revolution, as machines would develop that could squeeze out cocoa butter. And while “squeezing out cocoa butter” doesn’t exactly sound romantic, it’s getting us closer and closer to that heart-shaped box of chocolates, because this was the process that gradually led to the ability to keep chocolate hard.
And now we’ve danced to the side of the room where modern-day chocolates hold court. But the question remains: is there a reason why chocolate and love are associated?
Well, some chocolate, especially dark chocolate, is said to be good for the heart, possibly even helping to prevent heart attacks. But that’s probably not the sort of heart we’re thinking of. Yet dark chocolate does contain some antioxidants and elements that help the circulation — can you feel your heart thumping and your blood stirring?
And it also contains a stimulant called theobromine, that helps to elevate the mood. In fact, the botanical name of the plant, Theobroma cacao, means “food of the gods.”
Which, of course, it is.
But aphrodisiac effects? Probably not. What we are feeling, we chocolate lovers, nay worshippers — what we feel when we eat chocolate is simply a sensual pleasure from the texture and the lovely taste. With perhaps a little help from those mood-lifting elements. But for the most part, we add the romantic elements ourselves, gathering happy, pleasurable things together into one experience. Which, in the end, is perfectly fine as we settle back into a slow dance, just enjoying the moment.
Though I still suspect we may be getting a distant little push from Xochiquetzal.
Happy Valentine’s Day!