Originally published in Crème de la Crème, January 2010

Coco Delice

Chocolate - revered by Mayans and Aztecs alike - both fervent practicers of human sacrifice, and brought to Europe by the priests accompanying Cortes, who themselves had a short way with unbelievers. Despite the initial efforts of the church to keep the secret of chocolate buttoned up, its use became widespread in Europe. Funnily enough it didn't cause Europeans to rip each other's hearts out, so perhaps it was something else the Mayans and Aztecs had in common...

So good, they made it illegal.

Simply eating chocolate can induce symptoms of pleasure so intense that it has been imbued with powers both mystical and sensual in origin. Associated in ancient times with goddesses of fertility, the bitter drink derived from the cacao bean was first consumed about 2,600 years ago by the Maya in Central America. Both the Maya and their successors, the Aztecs, used the drink in their religious rites, and when the Spanish arrived, the Church at first attempted to control access to the ingredients and the recipes for making Xocolatl.

Cultivated by the pre-Columbian Aztec and Maya civilisations, the humble cocoa bean grows within pods on the trunks and branches of the cacao tree. At once a staple food and a unit of currency, the beans became a fundamental part of the economy of the Mayan and Aztec empires. Used as food, drink, medicine and religious ritual drink, the cacao tree became widely domesticated.

So widespread was its use that no attempt to control the knowledge of it in Europe could succeed, and by the mid-1600s, Cacao plantations had been established by the British and French in the Caribbean and the Spanish in the Philippines. The culinary and medical use of the bean spread rapidly throughout the known world.

The Europeans put a great deal of effort into making the drink more palatable, and to processing the beans to make a more-easily preserved form. This is the process that led to the creation of the sweet and solid chocolate we are most familiar with.

Part of the appeal of eating chocolate is that it melts at body temperature, releasing as it does its glorious flavour. A study reported by the BBC claims that chocolate’s naturally-occurring phenylethylamine can trigger the release of endorphins like serotonin, known to be natural analgesics and pleasure-releasers, naturally analogous to opiates. The study revealed that heart rate and brain activity, measures of excitement, were stimulated by eating chocolate to a degree that was more intense than that associated with romantic kissing, and lasted 4 times longer.

What else does chocolate contain? A small amount of caffeine – a cup of cocoa contains about as much as is in “decaffeinated” coffee, about 6mg. It has flavinoids believed to suppress cancer and protect the heart, and anti-oxidants believed to improve the ratios of good and bad cholesterol. Its saturated fat is stearic acid – which does not increase LDL cholesterol, unlike other saturated fats. In short, chocolate is good for you!

It is of course a high energy food, and a little goes a long way to make up your daily calorie quotient, so eat with moderation, and favour dark and bitter chocolate over milk and sweet chocolate.

The modern experience of chocolate is as far removed from the Mayan original as it is possible to go. Chocolate has inspired the world’s greatest chefs and confectioners and there is almost nothing that chocolate has not been asked to do. Its familiar solid form is immensely flexible. It can be moulded, carved, shaped, drawn and cut. It can be melted and poured and can take up almost any three-dimensional shape. It can be layered, combined with other flavours and colours. What other thing combines so gloriously with flavours as disparate as mint, fruit, cream and chili?

Chocolate’s great flexibility of form, liquids, solids, powders and flakes gives rise to an almost uniquely sensual range of textures. These, with its famous compatibility with other foods – nuts, nougats, fruit creams and alcoholic syrups, and in the hands of a master, can create a box filled with pure indulgent delight.

Chocolate as published in PDF form