And I’m Shirley Griffith with EXPLORATIONS in VOA Special English.
Today we travel around the world exploring the history of chocolate. Its story begins with a plant whose scientific name, Theobroma cacao, means “food of the gods.” For centuries, people have been enjoying the rich flavor of chocolate, a product made from this plant.
Join us as we tell about the history of chocolate and how it is produced. We will also meet Jane Morris, a chocolate maker in Washington, DC.
Most people today think of chocolate as something sweet to eat or drink than can be easily found in stores around the world. It might surprise you that chocolate was once highly treasured.
Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania recently released a study. It suggested that people in Central and South America first gathered the cacao plant much earlier and for a different use than experts once thought. The researchers examined the chemistry of substances found in ancient clay containers that were over three thousand years old. They discovered that the substance came from an alcoholic drink made from the fruit of the cacao plant. The researchers believe it was the interest in cacao as an alcoholic drink that led to the use of its bitter seeds to make what is now known as chocolate.
Historians believe the Maya people of Central America first learned to farm cacao plants around two thousand years ago. The Maya took the cacao trees from the rainforests and grew them in their gardens. They cooked the cacao seeds, then crushed them into a soft paste. They mixed the paste with water and flavorful spices to make an unsweetened chocolate drink. The Maya poured the chocolate drink back and forth between two containers so that the liquid had a layer of bubbles, or foam.
Cacao and chocolate were an important part of Maya culture. There are often images of cacao plants on Maya buildings and art objects. Ruling families drank chocolate at special ceremonies. And, even poorer members of society could enjoy the drink once in a while. Historians believe that cacao seeds were also used in marriage ceremonies as a sign of the union between a husband and wife.
The Aztec culture in current day Mexico also prized chocolate. But, the cacao plant could not grow in the area where the Aztecs lived. So, they traded to get cacao. They even used cacao seeds as a form of money to pay taxes or give as holy offerings to the gods.
Only the very wealthy people in Aztec societies could afford to drink chocolate because cacao was so valuable. The Aztec ruler Montezuma was believed to drink fifty cups of chocolate every day.
Some experts believe the word for chocolate came from the Aztec word “xocolatl” which in the Nahuatl language means “bitter water.” Others believe the word “chocolate” was created by combining Mayan and Nahuatl words.
The explorer Christopher Columbus brought cacao seeds to Spain after his trip to Central America in 1502. But it was the Spanish explorer Hernando Cortes who understood that chocolate could be a valuable investment. In 1519, Cortes arrived in current day Mexico. He believed the chocolate drink would become popular with Spaniards. After the Spanish soldiers defeated the Aztec empire, they were able to seize the supplies of cacao and send them home. Spain later began planting cacao in its colonies in the Americas in order to supply the large demand for chocolate.
The wealthy people of Spain first enjoyed a sweetened version of the chocolate drink. Later, the popularity of the drink spread throughout Europe. The English, Dutch and French began to plant cacao trees in their own colonies. Chocolate remained a drink that only wealthy people could afford to drink until the eighteenth century. During the period known as the Industrial Revolution, new technologies helped make chocolate less costly to produce.
Farmers grow cacao trees in many countries in Africa, Central and South America. The trees grow in the shady areas of rainforests near the Earth’s equator. But these trees can be difficult to grow. They require an exact amount of water, warmth, soil and protection. After about five years, cacao trees start producing large fruits called pods, which grow near the trunk of the tree. The seeds inside this pod are harvested to make chocolate.
There are several kinds of cacao trees. Most of the world’s chocolate is made from the forastero tree. But farmers can also grow criollo or trinitario cacao plants. Cacao trees grown on farms are much more easily threatened by disease and insects than wild trees are.
Growing cacao is very hard work for farmers. They sell their harvest on a futures market. This means that economic conditions beyond their control can affect the amount of money they will earn.
Today, chocolate industry officials, activists, and scientists are working with farmers. They are trying to make sure that cacao can be grown in a way that is fair to the farmers and safe for the environment.
To become chocolate, cacao seeds go through a long production process in a factory. Workers must sort, clean and cook the seeds. Then they break off the covering of the seeds so that only the inside fruit, or nibs, remain. Workers crush the nibs into a soft substance called chocolate liquor. This gets separated into cocoa solids and a fat called cocoa butter.
Chocolate makers have their own special recipes in which they combine chocolate liquor with exact amounts of sugar, milk and cocoa fat. They finely crush this “crumb” mixture so it is smooth. The mixture then goes through two more processes before it is shaped into a mold form.
Chocolate making is a big business. The market value of the yearly cacao crop around the world is more than five billion dollars. Chocolate is especially popular in Europe and the United States. For example, in 2005, the United States bought one point four billion dollars worth of cocoa products. Each year, Americans eat an average of more than five kilograms of chocolate per person. Specialty shops that sell costly chocolates are also very popular. Many offer chocolate lovers the chance to taste chocolates grown in different areas of the world.
Jane Morris is a chocolate maker in Washington D.C. She owns the company J Chocolatier. Here is her opinion on why people like chocolate so much:
"Well, scientists tell us that we all love chocolate because there’s a chemical response that takes place in our brains. But I like to think that people love chocolate because everybody has an experience that they can relate to eating chocolate, and usually it’s a good one. It’s a memory from childhood or its eating something that you know you weren’t supposed to, but you did it anyway and really enjoyed it. And chocolate marries well with almost any ingredient from any corner of the globe. It really is a perfect food."
Jane Morris can give you an entire lesson on different kinds of chocolate. She can give you a taste of a blended chocolate that contains cacao from around the world. Or, she can let you try a "single origin" chocolate grown in only one area of the world. For example, one fine chocolate made with cacao grown in Madagascar has a very interesting sour taste. While another chocolate grown in Venezuela has a very different taste.
JANE MORRIS: “Some people tell me when they taste this chocolate from El Rey that they can taste what they imagine the rainforest would smell like.”
Miz Morris uses these chocolates to make her own unusual creations.
JANE MORRIS: “Sometimes I look for inspiration in professional books. That’s always a good starting place. Then I also think about what I eat and what flavors work well together.”
Her most popular chocolate is called Montezuma.
JANE MORRIS: “People love this. It’s a chocolate with chipotle spice and Vietnamese cinnamon.”
You may think it is just a normal chocolate until you begin to taste the deep and rich heat of these special spices.
For another chocolate creation, she uses Earl Grey Tea to give it a flavor of the bergamot fruit. And, these chocolates are as nice to look at as they are to eat.
Jane Morris mainly sells her chocolates in local wine, candy and gift stores. She says she does not use any preservative chemicals in her products, so they only last about two or three weeks. But, she says she believes this is the way chocolate should be eaten.
We asked her if there was anything she wanted to tell Special English listeners. It might not surprise you she suggested that everyone should eat chocolate!
This program was written and produced by Dana Demange. I’m Bob Doughty.
And I’m Shirley Griffith. To read the text of this program and download audio, go to our Web site, voaspecialenglish.com. Join us again next week for Explorations in VOA Special English.