We all enjoy our fair portion of that sweet, soft, melt-in-your-mouth, creamy chocolate. There are tons of special occasions that use chocolate as a means to tell someone they are special, holiday traditions that require chocolaty recipes, festivals focused solely on chocolate (I've been to two in Italy- it was awesome!), national and international chocolate days, a word dedicated to those who consider themselves chocolate addicts...( I'm talking about you, chocoholics), not to mention the immense business that comes with the production, distribution, and purchase of chocolate. But do you know exactly how this amazing sweet treat came to be what it is? And what does the future of chocolate look like?
For hundreds of years, we have enjoyed the happiness that comes along with eating chocolate. Had a rough day at work? Have some chocolate to help you feel better. Want to surprise your special someone and show them your appreciation? Gift them truffles! Grandma is sick? Bring her some chocolate to wish her to get better soon! There are so many occasions and uses for chocolate. There are antioxidant properties in raw cacao, and some people even use it for healing and cleansing the skin; have you ever heard of the chocolate facial? Chocolate is considered an aphrodisiac and its early consumers even thought it linked them to spirituality, making them worship the "gods of cacao."
Early uses of cocoa date back to as early as 1900 B.C. according to The History Channel. Aztecs and Mayans in ancient Mexico used to mix a roasted cacao bean paste with spices and get a rich spicy and bitter drink that would be used for energy and to help with their libido. In ancient Mesoamerica, because cacao was so concentrated, rich, expensive, and had aphrodisiac properties (which was considered sacred and spiritual), people considered cacao as a special commodity that could be used mostly by gods and royalty. Cocoa was so largely cherished and worshiped that it even turned into a means of currency when certain types of dry lands did not produce cacao beans, and in turn left citizens with a high demand for this seized product.
Around the 1500's, the Spanish started incorporating sugar and cinnamon into the bitter cocoa paste made by the Mexicans. They brought this back with them to Europe and although the Spanish took credit for this discovery, the sweet stuff was quickly recognized by the rest of Europe, including the British, Dutch, and the French. Chocolate was a symbol of power, wealth, and social class. The elite paid a lot of money to get their hands on the product, which as a result became solely an upper class good.
From Elite to the Masses
It wasn't until the early 1800's when chocolate started becoming a more popular treat. The Cocoa press, created by Coenraad Johannes Van Houten, a chemist from the Netherlands, allowed chocolate makers to separate the cocoa butter from the cacao, drying it and making it into powder so that cocoa could be mixed and blended with any other liquids and ingredients and solidified into what we know today as chocolate bars! This process considerably lowered the production costs of chocolate which in turn allowed more people to consume the sweet treat.
Chocolate companies and chocolatiers such as Rodolohe Lindt, J.S. Fry & Sons, Mars, Cadbury, and Hershey's became widely popular for their different confections of chocolate and to this day, make millions of dollars on the mass amounts of chocolate that are consumed.
Today, there are even entire databases and museums dedicated to telling the story of this once worshiped bean. If you are interested in seeing for yourself, try master chocolatier Jacques Torres' New York City museum called Choco-Story. Opened in the beginning of last year (2017), it is one of the many other chocolate museums created by chocolatier Eddie Van Belle, who collected original chocolate-making artifacts. Tours are offered every week at Choco-Story and you can even learn how to make your own chocolate inside the museum.
FUN FACT: That famous glass clinking we do with our champagne glasses during a cheers is found to have derived from a custom in ancient Aztec and Mayan times when cocoa beans were placed in the bottom of drinking cups and shaken before drinking to scoot away evil spirits.
What About Today and Tomorrow?
As if past cacao demands were not already high, today more and more countries have been getting into the production of chocolate. People have realized that cacao beans can be used for a lot more than just the sugary chocolate as a confection, and in turn have started to study and use the entire cocoa bean for its vast nutritional benefits (say cocoa butter, cocoa powder and cacao powder, cocoa nibs, etc)
In addition, the current cacao bean farming and harvesting methods and its environment aren't the most ideal. Cacao beans are a very delicate crop and take years, if not decades to ripen. Cacao survives best in tropical climates, so this means most of the countries (third world countries in Africa, Asia, and South America) that harvest this crop are very poor and their farmers get very low wages and poor living conditions. As you can imagine, with the current massive demand for chocolate and the amount of work and time put into its harvesting and production, the process around cocoa and chocolate doesn't look too sustainable, with a future that feels too frail to forget about.
Crisis of the Cacao
Yes, humans tend to destroy their own environment, but we are also smart enough to assess a failing situation and try to fix it. Organizations have started doing research, coming together, and raising money to alleviate the crises of the cacao bean. The Fairtrade Foundation is one of the organizations making sure cacao production is being done as fair trade and as sustainable as possible. These organizations visit the areas in countries where cacao is being farmed and evaluate the workers' farming, living, and care conditions. A way that you can help is by doing your research on what brands support fair trade and sustainable cacao production and purchasing brands that do. And although some popular brands have moved towards the sustainable production direction, not everything they have adjusted may be beneficial to all of the parts of the production of chocolate. Hershey's example can be found here- at the end of the day, Hershey's new plan to move in the sustainable direction will not benefit the farmers who spend most of their day in the hot climate weather physically straining themselves to take care of the plantations. This does not equal fair trade creation.
As a take-away, chocolate is a very delicious product and cacao can be beneficial to so many parts of life. However, the amount of time and effort put into the farming and harvesting of the beans is predicting a short life span for this sweet gem. Let's do our part and purchase only fair trade and sustainably produced chocolate. Support the environment, support the beans!!
And if you are looking to give your S/O a sweet one while being conscious, check out this article for some fair trade chocolate brands.
And if I left you salivating, why not give these a try on this Valentine's Day? They will be good to share or to keep to yourself!