Food of the Gods
Chocolate is a divine, celestial drink, the sweat of the stars, the vital seed, divine nectar, the drink of the gods, panacea and universal medicine. ~ Geronimo Piperni
A laudable reputation, indeed, for the product of a small evergreen tree that grows diffidently beneath the rainforest canopy of Central America. Large pods in a spectrum of autumn colours and shaped like rugby balls cocoon more than fifty beans in a bed of soft pink pulp. The raw cacao bean is surprisingly bitter. Roasted at high temperatures, however, the bitterness is subdued and mollified, and more subtle flavours begin to emerge. The cacao tree—its Latin name, theobroma cacao, means ‘food of the gods’—and the gift of chocolate that it has bestowed upon the world has inspired writers and poets, chefs and children the world over, wrapped in a twisted tale of political and religious intrigue, pagan rights, love and lust with an improbable splash of alchemy.
According to food historian Allison James ‘it is well established that humans have an innate preference for sweetness and every culture has some sweet food source.’ For many, the ultimate source of sweetness is chocolate, and this is borne out by the fact that the confectionary industry—chocolate in particular—has continued to expand exponentially, its reputation as a decadent luxury and an aphrodisiac never seeming to grow old or tarnished.
Even the language of chocolate is sensual and seductive, rolling around in your mouth and over your tongue like thick, creamy, cloying ganache. Words like luscious, ambrosial, intoxicating, mouth-filling, rich, creamy, velvety, smooth… or in the language of Roald Dahl, who knows children crave the sweet joy of chocolate as much as any adult: “scrummdiddlyumptious.”
Any child who has ever been introduced to Willy Wonka has imagined the divine delight of inheriting a chocolate factory. And let’s face it, who doesn’t envy Augustus Gloop the opportunity to swim in a lake of liquid chocolate?
Chocolate actually began its existence in liquid form. The English name is probably a corruption of the bitter, spicy beverage, xocoatl, favoured by the Aztec nobility. Montezuma’s court could happily lap up 2000 jars a day, mixing it with wild honey or purple flower petals, chili, cloves, ambergris and musk, vanilla, nuts and allspice and then pouring it from jug to jug to make it froth. This legendary elixir was jealously guarded by the social elite, the only exception being made for a human sacrifice about to have his heart torn out. Then, in his final moments, the priests might bestow upon him a cup of chocolate spiked with blood to make the end more palatable. Montezuma regarded the cacao bean so highly he reputedly kept millions of pods in his treasury to use as currency.
The colonization of South America provided Europeans with many wonderful new ingredients for their kitchens: tomatoes and avocados; pineapples, peppers, and peanuts; turkey, tobacco, and tapioca. And chocolate.
The Aztecs introduced their legendary potion to the Spanish conquistadores in the 16th century. Initially unimpressed with this diabolically bitter beverage, Spanish missionaries replaced the chili and other heretical spices with honey or sugar, cream and vanilla to disguise the bitterness, before exporting it to the Royal Courts of Europe in the early 17th century, to the great financial advantage of the monasteries. There it quickly earned a somewhat spurious reputation as both a health tonic and a divinely inspired aphrodisiac, and, thanks to exorbitant taxing, was again enveloped in aristocratic privilege. Ironically, its sweetness also became the perfect foil for a dash of poison, as this reputed health tonic was occasionally used to finish off one’s enemies.
Cacao also travelled west to the new Spanish colony in the Pacific, the Philippines. The ancient method of making chocolate survives in the Philippines to this day, as I observed one day in the Kapampangan home of TV chef Lillian Borromeo.
The Filipinos have an old tradition of hot chocolate made from tablea, but here I watched an even older process—long and slow—of grinding the cacao beans together with peanuts using a thick, bulky grinding stone, similar to those used for grinding grain. The resulting paste was collected in a small pot and delivered to the rustic backyard kitchen where Atching Lillian poured the thick chocolate into creamy carabao milk, whisking it over an open fire until it was thick and foamy. It was then transferred into a copper jug, or chocolatera, and spun energetically with a traditional wooden batidor or molinillo to froth the chocolate still further. Steaming hot and cumulus, the hot chocolate was served in a mug, to slide decadently over your tongue and down your throat with a smooth but slightly grainy texture, the peanuts making it taste like liquid Nutella. A far cry from the Nesquick or Milo of my childhood.
Meanwhile, back in Europe in the mid-nineteenth century, chefs and chemists were experimenting with cacao and the new technologies of the industrial age. By grinding the beans into a paste that was then blended with sugar and cocoa butter, the acrid legume mystically, magically metamorphosed into solid chocolate as we know it today.
It rapidly became a craze across Europe that has never been extinguished. No longer an elitist luxury, it is now available to every level of society, thanks to the cost-effectiveness of mass production. Over a hundred and fifty years later, the likes of Bonnat and Cadbury, Ghirardelli and Hershey, Lindt and Nestlé are still household names that have been joined by many more chocolate makers world-wide, talented artisans all, who are able to take a small, brown, nut-like bean and transform it into a celestial stimulant; that wondrous, magical, divine, sublime gift from the gods that torments our taste buds. Chocolate.
By ALEX GREGORI
PHOTOGRAPHY BY ERIC CORPUZ | ISA HALAMANI