Yesterday I spent some time exploring the origins of St Valentines Day which falls on February 14th, about 3 weeks away. Today I decided to have a look at one of the most popular Valentine’s gifts, chocolate.
The giving of chocolate, especially luxury chocolates, has become symbolic of Valentine’s Day. Chocolate, since it’s earliest days has been believed to have aphrodisiac qualities which is likely why men are so apt to give the love of their hearts chocolate on Valentine’s Day. During the year 75% of chocolate purchases are made by women. On Valentine’s Day, men account for 75% of the chocolate purchased for that day.
Chocolate has a rich history of being an indulgence of the rich, a luxury not easily attained by the masses until the industrial revolution allowed for cheaper mass production. It wasn’t until the 1800s that chocolate in the solid form we associate the term with came into being. Before then, to have chocolate was to have it in drink form.
In a sense, chocolate and the cocoa beans it is made from was a reversal of civilization. It was the Aztecs and the Maya people as far back as 2000 B.C. who first started using the cocoa bean. They viewed it as “god’s food”. Cocoa beans were used for health. They first developed an unsweetened drink from the beans which was considered to be a health elixir. Even then, the drink was for the nobility. The Aztecs believed that wisdom and power came from eating the fruit of the cocoa tree and that the elixir had nourishing, fortifying and aphrodisiac qualities.
In 1492 Columbus returned from his voyage of discovery of the Americas. He brought along, amongst his other finds, some cocoa beans but alongside everything else, they garnered little attention. In 1502 he landed in Nicaragua becoming the first European to see the use of cocoa as both a drink and currency. He was so focused on finding that elusive passage to the Orient, he still didn’t see any potential in the cocoa bean.
In 1519 Hernando Cortez visits the New World and is fascinated by the use of the cocoa bean for currency. He establishes Spain’s first cocoa bean plantation to cultivate “money”. He does start to catch on to the drinking of chocolate when he realizes that the bitterness can be eliminated by introducing sugar and spices into the preparation. The results becomes a prized delicacy amongst the Spanish nobility.
By the late 1500s shiploads of beans were arriving in Spain for market. The pleasures of chocolate had not yet spread throughout Europe. When English and Dutch buccaneers captured Spanish ships loaded with beans they would burn them as useless cargo. This practice likely did a good job of keeping prices for chocolate high in Spain.
Around the mid 1600s Spanish nobility finally introduced chocolate to the French court where it was quickly embraced, particularly by King Louis XIV. From there it started its spread throughout the rest of Europe, arriving next in England. Around the same time candy using chocolate was starting to appear in Paris. In the early 1700s when chocolate arrived in Germany, the German king imposed a tax on those who wished to enjoy the pleasures of the drink.
By the mid 1700s the Industrial Revolution was underway and machinery for making chocolate started to develop. The first machine made chocolate is produced in Spain. The price for chocolate remained high due to taxes and import duties imposed by various countries, most notably England where chocolate houses had flourished.
In 1828 a press was invented which squeezed out some of the cocoa butter which improved the quality and consistency of the drink and lowered the price. In 1830 J.S. Fry and Sons in England took chocolate to a new level when they introduced the first solid eating chocolate. By the mid 1800s the heavy import duties on cocoa imported into England were relaxed which opened the door for more chocolate based businesses to start up and taking the chocolate out of the realm of the wealthy.
Although luxury chocolates, made from the highest quality ingredients and closely guarded production recipes, will always be in demand by those who can afford them or as an occasional special gift from the heart, like at Valentine’s Day.
Types of Chocolate
Today, chocolate comes in many forms, combined with many other flavours to produce a huge array of chocolate candies in all shapes and sizes. Here are the basic types of chocolate:
Dark Chocolate gives a strong chocolate flavor. It can feature nutty, spicy, floral and/or earthy notes with hints of fruit and caramel. It finishes with a balanced aftertaste that is not overpowering or too sweet. It also contains more flavonoids than other chocolates which is a good heart healthy substance.
Bittersweet Chocolate is similar to dark chocolate, except it typically has more chocolate liquor and an even more intense chocolate flavor.
Milk Chocolate offers a sweet flavor since it is made with milk and a higher sugar content than the darker varieties noted above. It also has a smaller quantity of chocolate liquor and, therefore, offers fewer flavors and aromas.
White Chocolate, which is not made with chocolate liquor, really isn’t considered a chocolate, but a confectioners coating. It is made with cocoa butter, which makes it rich and creamy with a variety of sweet flavor notes, including cream, milk, honey, vanilla, caramel and/or fruit.
What to Have Chocolate With
Quality Chocolate tends to have a strong flavour on its own which can overpower many other flavours. Generally speaking it tends to be a bit of a loner when it comes to what to enjoy with it.
The problem becomes even more complicated when you consider chocolate has so many personalities. It can be dark and intensely flavored, or sweet and white or delicately touched with milk to give it a gentleness. Chocolate can be plain or filled or part of a delicious dessert.
Wine and chocolate is a very difficult match. Wine must have a very powerful single-note aroma or chocolate will overwhelm it. Wines offering more subtle charms are, unsuitable matches for chocolate. The best wine to accompany chocolate shouldn’t be too dry, too acid, too tannic or too astringent. It should also not be too alcoholic.
Tea and chocoate are another difficult match. Tea and chocolate are very difficult to pair up. Green teas are especially difficult to pair with chocolate. Teas’ astringency, acidity and tannins work against the flavors of the chocolate. A partially fermented tea is most pleasing with chocolate. Oolong is among the best.
Liquors and chocolate is an easy match. Whiskey has a strong and distinct personality. The best ones to savor with chocolate should be not very tannic, but offer powerful woody undertones and notes of dried fruit, nuts, butter and caramel. They should also not be too bitter, too acidic, too sweet or too powerfully alcoholic.
Certain bourbons, with their roasted, honeyed aromas go beautifully with more delicate chocolates and desserts. Old Cognacs and Armagnacs that are very rounded on the palate with few tannins and very little astringency are a fine match with plain chocolate or filled chocolates that aren’t too sweet. Old and very old rums are perfect with pralinÃ©s and ganaches.
Coffee and chocolate is an easy match. Coffee and chocolate share many similarities and work well together both in filled chocolates and desserts. For a perfect match, it’s better to avoid very bitter coffees or any coffee with a scorched flavor. Maragogype coffees are mild and very refined, and thus perfectly suited for chocolate tasting.
Water and chocolate is the near perfect match. Water perfectly cleanses the palate between tastings. Seems the most perfect match would be the company of the person you either cared enough about to purchase luxury chocolates for or purchased them for you.