Chocolate – The Elixir of Love

Every February we are inundated with tv, internet, magazine and newspaper ads all selling the “passion” of chocolate. Roses have been pushed aside.  Valentine cards are a thing of the past.  Now chocolate has become the one true symbol of love and romance.  I need to find out not only how our obsession with chocolate began, but  where our love for chocolate started.

If you’ve read my blog “The John Company” then you know how “tea came to Great Britain.  It was Queen Elizabeth I who gave the East India Company a charter to go out in search of spices, competing with the Spanish and the Dutch.  Not only were spices necessary for preserving foods, spices made spoiled foods taste better. Spices were also used for embalming the dead, in religious practices, and as medicine.   Nutmeg was the most cherished of all spices because it was believed to be a miracle cure for the plague, which killed more than 35,000 people in London in 1603.

Over the 60 years during which they had a monopoly, The East India Company did bring back spices … pepper, cinnamon, clove, saffron, ginger and nutmeg … and they also brought back tea, coffee and cacao beans.  But it was actually the Spanish who are credited with introducing “Chocolate” to Europe.

Coffee House – 17th century

By the mid-17th century coffee houses were well established in London. These male-dominated “penny universities” were the social and political centers of London.  No woman would dare enter.  Although alcohol was not served, these places were not always ‘high brow’ destinations. In fact, King Charles II made an attempt to ban them altogether by 1675, but the public was so outraged, it was withdrawn.

Coffee was served, tea was just being introduced and alongside coffee and tea a new “hearty drink called “Chacolate” was starting to peak London’s curiosity.  In 1659 Thomas Rugg wrote in his Diurnal … “And theire ware also att this time a Turkish drink to bee sould, almost evry street, called coffee, and another kind of drink called tee, and also a drink called Chacolate, which was a very harty drink.”

Historians have been able to trace the origins of “Chocolate”, which is the result of roasting the ground beans of the cacao plant, back to as early as 1900 B.C. in Mexico, Central America and South America.  The Mayans and Aztecs used the pulverized seeds of the cacao plant, together with water and chili pepper, to brew ceremonial drinks.  They actually believed the cacao bean had divine and magical properties, which made it suitable for use in the most sacred rituals of birth, marriage and death.   The word “Chocolate” comes from the Maya word “xocoatl” which means “bitter water”.

Cacao beans were also used in trade as currency.  In 1545 a list of Aztec prices illustrates the value of this precious bean:  1 good turkey hen for 100 cacao beans, 1 turkey egg for 3 cacao beans, 1 fully ripe avocado for 1 cacao bean, 1 large tomato for 1 cacao bean.   Unfortunately, according to a report at that time from Hernando de Oviedo y Valdez, cacao beans also bought:  a slave for 100 cacao beans. services of a prostitute for 10 cacao beans, and a rabbit dinner for 4 cacao beans.

It’s hard to know who to credit in the mid-16th century with introducing Spain to the cacao bean and the “hot beverage” that was made from it.  Was it the explorer Christopher Columbus, the conqueror Hernán Cortés, or was it the returning missionary Dominican friars?  Whoever it was certainly made an impression on the Spanish court.  This hot, bitter beverage made from the pressed blocks of dried cacao beans and hot water became a hit with Spanish aristocracy, but only after they began adding honey or sugar to it.  They found it most enjoyable when mixed with milk and flavorings such as vanilla, cinnamon, ground cloves, allspice and chilies.

“Chocolate” then migrated from Spain to France because of the marriage of Spanish King Philip IV’s daughter, Marie Thérèse, who, when she married French King Louis XIV, introduced these hot and hearty drinks to her French entourage.  King Louis XIV became so very fond of chocolate, he actually granted a monopoly for manufacturing this beverage to David Chaillou, a French importer.

Back in England, it was an entrepreneurial Frenchman now familiar with this wonderful elixir who, wanting to elevate the chocolate experience in London, removed it from the bawdy coffee house atmosphere and in 1657 opened the first “chocolate house”.  As always, the wealthy elite were the only ones who could afford this luxurious experience.  Tea was very dear, selling at approximately £26 per pound … which, when you consider the average income was less than £10 per year, was outrageous … and chocolate was just as expensive!

But where did the allure of chocolate as an aphrodisiac come from? The Spanish were quite observant in noticing that the Aztec emperor, Montezuma, drank copious amounts of this cacao bean beverage before he visited his harem.  Montezuma, is said to have drunk cold, thick chocolate from golden goblets daily, which were thrown away after only one use.  And when returning to Spain with the new elixir these Spanish explorers were quite eager to tout the aphrodisiac properties to the Spanish court.  The explorers also described this native “food of the gods” as a drug, able to treat a variety of ailments.

It is said that the French aristocrat, Marquis de Sade, became quite proficient in using chocolate to disguise potions.  The following is taken from a guest’s diary at an elaborate ball given in 1772 by the Marquis:

“Into the dessert he slipped chocolate pastilles so good that a number of people devoured them. There were lots of them, and no one failed to eat some, but he had mixed in some Spanish fly. The virtue of the medication is well known. It proved to be so potent that those who ate the pastilles began to burn with unchaste ardor and to carry on as if in the grip of the most amorous frenzy. The ball degenerated into one of those licentious orgies for which the Romans were renowned…”

Needless to say, the European’s love for chocolate grew, especially when they believed it to have nutritious, medicinal and properties able to increase their libido.  But, like tea, it remained a privilege of the rich.  In the 1700’s, the British obsession for chocolate (and sugar) grew to such proportions they established colonial plantations in tropical regions around the world just to grow cacao and sugar.  Sadly, we all know what happened when European diseases were transmitted into these countries which, to the then privileged Europeans, didn’t stop them from going in search of cheap labor.

Chocolate was always a hot (or iced) drink until 1828 when Dutch chemist, Coenraad Johannes van Houten, invented a specialized hydraulic press  to squeeze the fatty cocoa butter from the roasted cacao beans, leaving behind a dry cake which could then be pulverized into a fine powder.  (We still see “Dutch process” as a way of branding cocoa today.)  This fine powder could be mixed with liquids, poured into molds and solidified into edible, easily digestible chocolate which paved the way for the solid chocolate we all know and love.  This also resulted in making chocolate affordable to everyone. And in 1830, J. S. Fry and Sons, a British chocolate maker, is credited with making the first solid, edible chocolate candy bar.

50 years later, J. S. Fry and Sons merged with another company you may have heard of … Cadbury.  In 1824 John Cadbury opened a grocery store in Birmingham, England.  In addition to groceries, he sold drinking chocolate, which he prepared himself using a pestle and mortar.  Van Houten’s 1828 invention allowed for a much more affordable and versatile product, enabling Cadbury to sell 16 flavors of drinking chocolate.  And when Daniel Peter from Switzerland puts the first milk chocolate on the market, the appeal for chocolate skyrocketed. In 1913 another enterprising Swiss, Jules Sechaud, introduced the process for filling chocolates.  We haven’t looked back since!

So how did we get from there to being the one true symbol of love and romance?  English philosopher, James Wadsworth, translated the Spanish works Treatise (1640), which poetically combined the descriptions of this new hot chocolate beverage with the promise that if you drank enough chocolate anyone would become “faire and amiable.”  Both England and France used this statement as a powerful marketing tool.

Cadbury’s Valentine’s Day Box

St. Valentine’s Day, as a romantic holiday, was well established by the 1840’s.  It first appeared in the writings of Chaucer during the medieval period in 1382 with knights giving roses to their maidens and serenading them with songs.  By the 1840s, the Victorian era of excess was well underway and they were indulging in chocolate, tea, Cupid and romance.  Richard Cadbury recognized this as a great marketing opportunity and designed an elaborately decorated box in which he would put their Cadbury chocolates.  From that moment on, Cupids and roses were put on heart-shaped boxes everywhere.

In 1907, the American chocolate company, Hershey, launched production of its revolutionary tear-dropped shaped “kisses,” (named because of the smooching noise made by the machines as the chocolate was manufactured). Let’s not forget from the earliest days of movies, chocolate has been an important cast member.  Jean Harlow’s seductive performance in the 1933 film Dinner at Eight linked chocolate and sexuality forever, as she suggestively nibbles her way through a giant box of chocolates.  And who will ever forget the classic episode of “I Love Lucy” when Lucy and Ethel worked on a chocolate factory assembly line?

Chocolate lovers are passionate about chocolate, but does chocolate really create passion? Scientists have isolated phenylethylamine (PEA) which is a stimulant found in chocolate (as well as many other foods), and also in the brain.  A minuscule amount of this stimulate is released at moments of emotional euphoria, which raises blood pressure and heart rate.  Although we have learned about the many antioxidant benefits of high-percentage cacao in chocolate, there really is no scientific proof that chocolate is an aphrodisiac.

Does any of this matter?  Not really … because who doesn’t love the luscious, pleasurable sensation of chocolate as it melts in your mouth? And, for me, a velvet-covered, heart-shaped box full of divine chocolates is the quintessential Valentine’s gift.

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References:  Wikipedia, Message to Eagle, Chocolate of the Month, Cornell University, History, Cadbury, Public Domain Review, Smithsonian,
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Millionaire’s Shortbread

The first time I had this rich, buttery piece of deliciousness was about ten years ago, in a basement tearoom of an old Manor House in Cornwall.  The tearoom was very modest, providing visitors with just a quick cuppa and a biscuit (cookie) or scone.  But standing out among the other biscuits was this stunning shortbread …. a buttery cookie base with gooey caramel filling, topped with a thick layer of milk chocolate.  Irresistible!!

But now, at least 10 years later, Millionaire’s Shortbread is EVERYWHERE!  From the food counters at M&S, to the bakery cases in the finest patisserie, to handy packages of 2, 4 or 6 pieces at every roadside rest area shop.  But, honestly, even the prepackaged shortbreads were pretty darn good.

How did Millionaire’s Shortbread get it’s name?
Shortbread originated in Scotland around the 12th century as a simple unleavened biscuit (cookie) using just the ingredients available in most homes at that time ….. butter, flour, sugar.   The refinement of this biscuit didn’t occur until Mary Queen of Scots assigned her French chefs to the task.  Only with the addition of more butter, more sugar, a pinch of salt, and formed into different shapes, did this delectable morsel become in demand.  Over time, other ingredients were added, lemon, almonds, ginger, cinnamon.   This version, with its creamy caramel center and thick milk chocolate topping, didn’t appear until the 19th century.  It is said that to be able to afford this decadently RICH biscuit you actually had to be a “Millionaire”.

Of course, I had to try my hand at making it.  I must admit to a couple of fails (overbaked shortbread, burnt caramel, etc.), but the last one turned out exactly how I remembered it.  So, don’t be afraid to make a mistake (or two), it’s well worth the effort in the end.

MILLIONAIRE’S SHORTBREAD 
Shortbread base:
2 sticks butter, softened
1/2 cup sugar
2-1/4 cups all purpose flour
1/4 cup cornstarch

Caramel filling:
1/2 cup water
2-1/2 cups sugar
2 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup heavy cream

Chocolate topping:
8 oz. milk chocolate chips
1 teaspoon vegetable oil

Preheat oven to 350°.  Grease and flour, or line with parchment paper a 9″ x 13″ baking pan.  I recommend using parchment paper.  It makes getting the shortbread out of the baking pan much easier.

In one bowl mix together the flour and cornstarch.  In another bowl using a stand or hand mixer, beat the softened butter til creamy.  Add 1/2 cup of sugar to the creamed butter and beat til lemony colored, light and airy.

Using a wooden spoon, slowly add the dry ingredients to the creamed mixture, blending well. The mixture will be very crumbly (short).  Don’t overwork the dough or your cookies will be tough.  Dump the batter into the prepared baking pan and press down with your hands.  Use whatever you happen to have (with a flat bottom) to press the batter down firmly and evenly.

Bake at 350° for 16 to 18 minutes – just until its set and lightly browned.  Take the shortbread out of the oven and let it cool in the pan while you prepare the caramel.

The caramel can be tricky (believe me, I’ve burnt a couple of batches).  The secret is to not stir it, or take your eyes off it, while its boiling away.  A minute will make all the difference.  If you want to use a candy thermometer, then by all means use it.  I didn’t.


Using a heavy, high-sided saucepan pour the sugar into the center of the pan.  Then carefully pour the water around the outside of the sugar.  Try not to get the sugar onto the sides of the pan or it will crystallize.  If this happens, have a pastry brush handy in a cup of water to wash down the sides of the pan.  Do not stir the sugar and water together.  Just let it be.

Using medium heat, bring the sugar and water to a boil – NO STIRRING.  When it boils, reduce the heat to low and let it boil away until its caramel colored.  You can determine how dark you want it … but don’t let it burn.  This will take about 15 minutes.

When it is ready, remove the pan from the heat and drop in 2 tablespoons of butter.  The mixture will immediately boil up.  Using a wooden spoon, quickly stir in the butter.  Now pour in the 1/2 cup of heavy cream.  Again the mixture will bubble up.  Stir it down quickly.  Continue stirring until the caramel has cooled down and thickened.  This will take about 5 minutes.

When it is ready, pour the caramel over the cooled shortbread and place the pan into the refrigerator to let the caramel set.

This is the easiest part … dump a bag of chocolate chips (milk chocolate or semi-sweet, it’s up to you), into a microwave-proof bowl and melt the chocolate.  When its melted, stir in the oil. Quickly pour the warm chocolate over the cooled caramel filling and, with the back of a spatula, smooth out the surface.  Let the chocolate cool completely.

When ready to serve, take the shortbread out of the pan.  If you’ve used parchment paper, you can just lift it up and out.  Using a very sharp knife, cut the shortbread into bars or squares.  It’s up to you!  Stack them up on a plate and keep an eye on them because they’ll disappear right before your eyes.  But, if they don’t, they’ll keep very well in an airtight container.

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