“What use are cartridges in battle? I always carry chocolate instead,” wrote George Bernard Shaw. This is more than a bit of humor since chocolate has been featured in survival kits of soldiers and mountaineers, taken flight on the U.S. space shuttle Columbia, and served as a cross-cultural offering to the gods. Even the scientific name of chocolate, “theobroma,” means “food of the gods.
From Mexican mole to mocha from West Africa, throughout history and across the globe, chocolate is loved. The plant dates back to 1800 B.C., when Olmec culture domesticated cacao in the lowlands of the Mexican Gulf Coast. The Mayans cultivated the cacao bean and developed a fermentation process to create a powerful, medicinal drink. While we think of chocolate as a solid, for most of its history, it was consumed as a revered liquid. The spicy chocolate beverage was imbibed by Aztec warriors and was a liquid luxury for the Mayan elite. Its cultural history includes ritual usage as an offering to the Aztec gods and at a variety of celebrations. Mayan and Aztec ceremonies for newborn children involved chocolate anointing of the face, fingers and toes. Mesoamerican weddings dating back to 1000 A.D. included an exchange of frothy chocolate drinks.
Cacao was considered a sacred plant and divine gift of the Aztec sky god Quetzalcoatl. The blessed brew was associated with various male deities such as the Mixtec Seven Flower and the Aztec Lord Of Flowers—also known as Xochipilli, the god of song, poetry and spring. Medicinal chocolate beverages prepared by the Mayans and Aztecs were often blended with ground maize and herbs. When mixed with ground hot pepper, it helped relieve pain spiked with ground vanilla bean, it induced sleep. Others claimed chocolate drinks stimulated exhausted kidneys, tonified nerves and reduced breathlessness.
In 1510, Montezuma served Spanish explorer Hernán Cortés gold cups filled with a sweetened chocolate drink flavored with cinnamon and vanilla. After its introduction to Spain in 1544, chocolate was grown as an exotic spice in Europe. By the 1590s, rather than a sacred bitter herb, it was called an “addiction.” In 18th century Italy, chocolate became infamous as the vehicle for disguising the poison that killed Pope Clement XIV. During this period, chocolate also began its rise as a flavoring for everything from soup to entrees.
West Africa is now the main source of the world’s chocolate. The Netherlands process the most cacao, while the Swiss are the largest consumers per capita (24 pounds of chocolate per person each year). But in Germany, you can find a restaurant—the first anywhere in Europe—where every course is infused with chocolate. Thoughts of my visit here leave me salivating rather than considering the curative properties of chocolate, which range from relaxation and mood elevation (its smell increases theta brain waves) to a healthier heart (with its flavonoids and anti-oxidants). And its euphoria-inducing chemical, which has been isolated by scientists, is associated with falling in love.
A sweet tooth isn’t necessary to enjoy Berlin’s new Schokoladen Restaurant, opened by confectioners Fassbender & Rausch in 2006. Their upscale menu features cacao beans from , Tobago, Trinidad, and Venezuela in creations by chefs from all over the world. You can opt for celeriac soup seasoned with chocolate, sole tartar with white chocolate, or chestnut blini with chocolate. Many enjoy viewing the chocolate sculptures (a volcano, the Titanic, and the Brandenburg Gate) along with the thousand different chocolate products downstairs at Fassbender-Rausch (which has made chocolate in Berlin since 1863). Others appreciate sipping exquisite hot cocoa while watching the live chocolate dinner theater shows (Treasure Island Tobago! or Viva Arriba!) upstairs at the Schokoladen Restaurant. It’s here that Chef Markus Walder also teaches chocolate culinary workshops.
||DRINK OF THE MAYA
courtesy of The Field Museum in Chicago
Scoop cacao seeds out of their fleshy pods. Pile the seeds in baskets or under leaves and let them ferment for about a week.
Clean the seeds lay them in the sun to dry.
Roast the seeds over an open fire.
Remove the shells and crush the meaty seed on a stone table to create a soft paste.
Add water, cornmeal, honey, or chili peppers. Pour back and forth between two vessels to create foam, then enjoy!
CREAMED CELERIAC SOUP
Recipe created by Austrian Chef Markus Walder, from the Schokoladen Restaurant in Berlin.
1 and 1/4 cups celeriac (celery root)
2 teaspoons onion
2 teaspoons garlic
Salt and pepper (to taste)
1/2 cup cream
3 tbsp butter
1 and 1/2 ounces vegetable stock
1 and 1/2 tsp chocolate
Dice the celeriac. Cut the onions in slices.
Sauté the onions and celery in a pan. Add the garlic. Bring to a boil and then heat everything for about 35 minutes.
Mix it all together. Serve the soup in a bowl made from the shell of the celeriac.
Melt the chocolate over the soup as the final touch.
• Chocolate can be fatal to pets. Dogs and cats can’t process chemicals in chocolate.
• Chocolate comes from the cacao tree and its seed pods grow directly on the trunk.
• Cacao seeds—unrelated to cocaine—are not sweet.
• It takes 12 cacao seeds to make one ounce of dark chocolate.
• The Chinese eat only one bar of chocolate for every 1,000 eaten by the British.
Chocolate, the museum exhibit originating at The Field Museum in Chicago, will be at the Great Lakes Science Center in Cleveland from February 9–May 4, 2008.
Schokoladen Restaurant, Berlin, Germany
Gerstner, the Austrian Imperial Confectioner, Vienna, Austria
Bake Me a Wish!, New York City
Chocolaterie, Nyack, NY & Newton,NJ