Chocolate's journey from ancient gods to modern-day treats

TNIE explores the ancient origins of dark, bitter-sweet chocolate, its spread to south India, and the not-so-sweet history of slavery entwined with its production
Representative image
Representative image

The food of gods! That’s how chocolate was known back in the day. Of course, each bite is a heavenly symphony of bitter-sweetness. The smooth, melt-in-the-mouth sensation is nothing short of a divine experience.

However, mythical and mystical it sounds, it was a Swedish scientist — Carl Linnaeus — who named the cocoa plant Theobroma cacao, inspired by the Latin word Theobroma meaning food of the gods. 

Chocolate’s association with the gods began in Mesoamerica (today’s Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador). The people of the region believed cacao was gifted to humans by a feathered serpent god known as Kukulkan. Until the 16th century, chocolate only existed in Mesoamerica. However, not in the form that we know of.

In 1900 BCE, the indigenous people of Mesoamerica used the native cacao to create a drink. But nothing similar to the sweet hot chocolate of recent years. It was a bitter drink frothing with foam. The earliest records state that to make the drink, cocoa beans were ground and mixed with cornmeal and chilli peppers.

The Aztecs, a major civilisation in Mesoamerica, used cacao beans as currency and even drank the invigorating concoction during royal feasts and sometimes as a reward to soldiers for success in battle. 

In 1519, the chocolate had a transatlantic encounter when Hernan Cortes, the governor of New Spain, visited Tenochtitlan, the ancient capital of the Aztecs. King Moteuczoma greeted the visitor by pouring 50 jugs of the chocolate drink into golden cups. When the Spanish invaded and colonised the areas where chocolate was found, they took the source of the ‘rich person’s beverage’ for their own use. Some colonists returned with shipments of the cacao beans, and as they reached the other side, the beans were given the reputation as an aphrodisiac. 

However, the initial responses to chocolate in Europe were mixed. As per research, though the Spanish crown relished the drink, many in Europe rejected it, because of its association with the indigenous people and as the food came from those who they were colonising. 

To make chocolate appealing to Europeans, they were informed of cacao’s curative qualities, such as its ability to soothe upset stomachs. Soon they became a popular delicacy when sweetened with sugar, vanilla, or honey. The aristocratic houses of Spain even had dedicated chocolate ware. From Spanish, the delicacy gradually found its space among the French and Italians as well as they included milk and added sugar. For the British, the drink was a thick and delicious concoction. 

During this timeline, the chocolate was merely a drink, it got shaped into other forms only in the 19th century, with the launch of the cocoa press by Coenraad van Houten of Amsterdam. This separated cocoa’s natural fat aka cocoa butter and also formed the cocoa powder. In 1875, a Swiss chocolatier named Daniel Peter formed the milk chocolate bars by adding powdered milk to the mix. As slowly such inventions came to the fore, by the 20th century, chocolate was no longer a luxury. 

Not so sweet past

The production of chocolate is time-consuming. And that meant plantations in the Caribbean and on islands off the coast of Africa started using slave labour. Enslaved people from African countries became the primary source for most of the cultivating process, which included growing the beans, picking them and manually grinding them to paste.

Since cocoa can be grown only near the equator, to meet the massive demand, the production itself shifted to West Africa, instead of shipping slaves to South American plantations. 

The chocolate industry grew, but human rights abuses persisted. Many plantations in West Africa employed slave and child labour, with reports estimating that over two million children were affected. Even to date, atrocities continue in many parts.

In the 1800s, many chocolate giants including Nestlé, Hershey’s, and Cadbury, relied on slave plantations for cocoa. Around this time, there was a shift in slavery in the Western world, and abolition movements gained support. Britain, France, the US and other countries outlawed slavery. 

Despite the initial outrage, chocolate companies continued to purchase cocoa beans from slave plantations in West Africa and the horrific practices went on. Ghana and the Ivory Coast, which produce over 50 per cent of the world’s cocoa beans, have economies heavily dependent on chocolate production. To maintain profits, plantation owners implemented extreme cost-cutting measures, including, the recruitment of child labourers. These children often work 60 to 100 hours per week, using long sharp tools and chemicals without protective clothing. The kids are deprived of education and suffer injuries from chemical burns, cuts, and hernias from transporting heavy sacks of cocoas. 

All the way to India

The British introduced cacao to India in 1798, establishing eight Criollo-type plantations in Courtallam in Tamil Nadu. Cocoa farming became a significant agricultural pursuit in the mid-1960s when British confectionary giant Cadbury set up operations in Wayanad. However, the Criollo variety from Central America was eventually deemed fragile for local conditions and was replaced by higher-yielding Amazonian Forastero variety, sourced from West Africa and Malaysia. 

In the 1960s and 70s, extensive cacao cultivation happened in South India. Due to the favourable climate, Kerala, Madras and Myskr were picked as prime locations for growing cacao. Later on, Nagercoil, Tenkasi, Palani Hills and Anamalai Hills.

And now, many farm-to-table chocolate brands have mushroomed in Kerala, with curated artisanal products. This once-divine and luxury product has now become the most popular ingredient used in both desserts and savoury dishes. It truly is an everyday sweet for the masses.

Hazelnut choco spread (homemade Nutella)

Ingredients

Hazelnut - 300 gm

Olive oil- 1 to 2 tbsp

Cocoa powder - 1 tsp ( or more if you like a strong cocoa punch)

Flax seed powder - 1 tsp

Jaggery powder or brown sugar 3-4 tbsp (as per taste)

Melted chocolate - 10 tbsp( or more as you like )

Method

Roast hazelnuts in an oven at 150 degrees for 8-10 minutes or roast on the stovetop on low flame. This is crucial in getting a smooth paste. To a grinder add the roasted nuts and the rest of the ingredients and grind to a fine smooth paste. Store in an airtight container. It will stay good at room temperature for 2 to 3 days, and if kept in the refrigerator, it can last up to 3 months or more.

Millet chia choco bowl with yoghurt & fruits

Ingredients

Ragi flakes - 1/4 cup

Chia seed - 2 tbsp

Milk - 100 ml

Date paste - 3 tbsp

Honey - as per taste

Yoghurt - 1 cups

Cocoa powder - 1/2 tsp

Method

To a bowl, add ragi flakes, chia seeds, date paste, yoghurt, honey and cocoa powder paste (for the paste add some milk to the cocoa powder). Mix everything, and make sure to add milk in small quantities in between. Let it set for 30 minutes at room temperature or overnight in the refrigerator for better flavour. Add more milk if you want to adjust the consistency. Garnish with chocolate chips, your choice of fruits and nuts.

Chocolate trifle with caramelised apple

For custard

Milk: 1 cup

Sugar: 1 tbsp

Egg yolks: 3

Cocoa powder: 1 tbsp

Vanilla essence 1 tsp

For berry filling

Blueberry / BlackBerry / blackcurrant

Hot water: 3tbsp

Sugar: 1 tsp

For caramelised apple

Apple: 1

Sugar : 2 tbsp

Butter - 1/4 tsp

For the berry filling

Soak the berries in a lukewarm water for 15 minutes. Add 1 tsp sugar and cook it on low flame. Keep it aside.

For caramelised apple Peel the skin of the apple and chop them into fine cube pieces. To a pan, melt two tablespoons of sugar until it turns brown. Then add butter to it. Put the chopped apple pieces to it and mix well. Keep it aside and let it cool down for a while.

How to set the trifle

To a tall glass, add the berry mix, then chocolate custard and on top add the caramelised apples.

Method: In a bowl, add the yolk of three eggs, sugar and vanilla essence. Mix well. Heat the milk in a pan. From this, take half a cup of milk and add to the egg mixture, mix continuously. Add some cocoa powder to the remaining mix and stir well. Pour it into the egg mixture. Now, keep aside this to cool down.

No-Bake Chocolate Tart

Ingredients

Digestive biscuit:

15 pieces

Butter: 6 tbsp (Melted )

Butter (Soften): 4 tbsp

Dark Chocolate

(Semisweet): 300gm

Heavy cream: 1 cup

Brown sugar: 3 tbsp

Salt: 1 pinch

Vanilla essence : 1 tsp

Whipped Cream ( For topping): 1 tbsp

Method: Take 15 pieces of digestive biscuits and crush them in a chopper. Add 6 tbsp of melted butter and mix them well for a fine crumbly crust. Pour these crumbles into the 9-inch bottom tart pan and gently press down for an even tart crust. Refrigerate the tart crust for 20 minutes for the set.

Take the 300 grams of semi-sweet dark chocolate and cut them into fine pieces. Now for double boiling, in a deep pot, boil some water. In a large glass bowl, add the chopped chocolate and place the bowl on top of the boiling water to melt the chocolate. Add 1 cup of heavy cream to the bowl. Add 3 tbsps of brown sugar, 4 tbsps of soft butter, a pinch of salt, 1 tsp vanilla essence and crushed chocolate in the heavy cream. Stir well to completely melt the chocolate. Pour the chocolate filling into the cold tart crust. Refrigerate the tart overnight or until set. Add whipped cream and sprinkle ground coffee or chocolate before serving.

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