A Little of what you Fancy

Appears in

Chocolate: The Food of the Gods


By Chantal Coady

Published 1993

To some a poison, to others an elixir, chocolate was an important source of nourishment for the ancient tribes of America, including the great Aztec civilization, in which it was highly valued for its sustaining properties. The Aztecs would march all day on a single cup of xocolatl.

In his book Native Races of the Pacific States, published in 1875, the historian H. H. Bancroft wrote about the Aztecs, and other Native American peoples who used chocolate as a medicine. There is a fascinating account of how the Aztecs, . . dug up the bones of giants at the foot of the mountains, and collected by their dwarfish successors, ground to powder, mixed with Cocoa, and drunk as a cure for diarrhoea and dysentery.’ This seems to echo the Chinese tradition of digging up ‘dragon’ bones, to be ground and mixed with other herbs as a medicine, adding weight to the theory that the early settlers of America originally came from Asia. A bit later Bancroft writes: ‘Scalding hot Cocoa mixed with chilli is the favourite stimulant, of which very large quantities are imbibed, until the perspiration starts from every pore.’

In 1604 Joseph Acosta wrote of chocolate as being good for the stomach and for catarrh. Thirty years later Thomas Gage, the mendicant friar, paid his native porters in chocolate. This served as a wonderfully refreshing and energizing drink, which the Indians regarded very highly, as well as having another value in the form of money, so that everyone was well pleased with the exchange. Gage attributed his own excellent health to having drunk five cups of chocolate every day for twelve years. He also found it gave him the energy to stay awake at night to write his notes.
As early as 1631, Antonio Colmenero published the first recipe for drinking chocolate. He had himself taken the recipe from a physician in Marchena:
  • Of cacaos 700 (beans)
  • Of white sugar, one pound and a halfe
  • Cinnamon 2 ounces
  • Of long red pepper 14
  • Of cloves, halfe an ounce (the best writers use them not)
  • Three Cods of the Logwood or Campeche tree. These Cods are very good, and smell like Fennell.
  • or instead of that the Weight of 2 Reals or a shilling of Anniseeds.
  • As much of Achiote as will give it colour which is about the quantity of a hasell-nut.

Colmenero later comments that to his mind this quantity of achiote is too little to colour the quantity made according to the Marchena recipe, and he suggests each person should put in as much as he thinks fit, a suggestion which future cookery writers would express in the formula ‘according to taste’. Achiote is still used today, especially in the Caribbean and the Philippines. More commonly known as anatto, it is a kind of seed, and serves as a natural, red colouring agent.

He goes on to discuss the virtues of this drink, which is so wholesome and so good. He explains that there are two sorts of cocoa: one is common, and is made from cocoa beans which are a grey colour, inclining towards red; the other is made from a broader and bigger bean, known as ‘patlaxte’. This bean is white and more drying, and also it causes insomnia, and therefore is not as useful as the first variety. The two different bean varieties to which he was referring may well have been criollo and forastero. It is indeed true that cocoa stimulates the brain, owing to the theobromine naturally present in the bean, and therefore might cause insomnia. The idea of taking hot chocolate as a bedtime drink seems to be a twentieth-century one, and works because, while the cocoa may serve as a stimulant, the hot milk acts as a calming sleep inducer.

He also mentions some of the ingredients which were commonly added to the drink. He writes approvingly of the effect of adding almonds, and with great disapproval of the adulteration of the drink with maize. This was a habit of the natives, possibly because they liked the mixture or else, as Colmenero believed, an economy made for the sake of profit. The following passage contains what must be one of the earliest references to the evils of adulteration:

Some put in Almonds, kernels of Nuts, and Orange-flower water. They do not ill because they give it more body and substance than maize or Paniso, which others use, and for my part I should always put it into Chocolate, for almonds are moderately hot and have a thin juice; but you must not use new almonds. . . . Those who mix maize, or Paniso in the Chocolate do very ill; because those grains do beget a very melancholy Humour. It is also apparently windy, and those which mix it in this confection, do it only for their profit, by increasing the quantity of the chocolate.

He also detailed at some length the various types of chillies which were commonly added to the drink. Mexico is still famous for its many chilli varieties, the best known being the jalapeño, which becomes the chipotle when smoke dried; then come the ancho, pasilla and serrano. In Colmenero’s day there were four types of red peppers used in flavouring chocolate.

Two kinds are very quick and biting, the other two are called Tonalchiles, and these are moderately hot; for, they are eaten with bread, as they eat other fruits, and they are of a yellow colour; and they grow only about the Towns, which they are in, and adjoining to the Lake of Mexico. The other pepper is called Chilpacla-gua, which hath a broad husk and is not so biting as the first, nor so gentle as the last, and is that which is usually put in chocolate. There are also other ingredients . . . one called Mechasuchil, another Vinecaxtli, which in Spanish they call Orejuelas, which are sweet smelling flowers, Aromacticall and hot. In Spain they put in powder of Roses of Alexandria. I have spoken of all these ingredients, that everyone may make choice of those that please him best, or are most proper for his infirmities. The cacao is mingled with all these ingredients which are hot, which serve to temper the coldnesse of the cacao.

When speaking of coldness, Colmenero is referring to one of the key classifications used in medieval medicine. The concepts of hot and cold did not relate to the actual temperature at which the food would have been eaten, but rather to its ‘energetic’ nature. For example, melon would be seen as being cold, and ginger as hot. These classifications were closely associated with the idea of the body being composed of humours (which are essentially ‘energies’ transported by the blood and body fluids) which, if not kept in balance, cause illness. The medieval apothecary’s job was to prescribe herbs of different ‘energies’ to correct an excess or lack of any humour and thus bring his patient back to health. This age-old principle is still being followed today in some branches of ‘alternative’ medicine, notably traditional Chinese herbal medicine and acupuncture, which have a 2,000-year history of practice and theoretical debate, and pre-date the discovery of chocolate by some fifteen centuries.
It is not surprising, with such an attitude prevailing, that Spanish physicians condemned the practice of taking cold chocolate, since it was already considered ‘cold’ in the energetic sense. In the seventeenth century a new craze for ‘The Gallants and the Ladies’ was for drinks to be refrigerated in snow, especially chocolate. Perhaps this should be seen as a precursor of the modern chocolate milk shake?

One of the earliest known users of cocoa in France was Cardinal Richelieu’s brother, Alphonse-Louis du Plessis. He took cocoa as a medicine, after consulting his physician René Moreau about its therapeutic qualities. In 1661 the French faculty of medicine approved the use of chocolate. At this time cocoa was still unknown in the French provinces. In 1672 Madame de Sévigné was devastated to learn that her daughter was going to live in Lyons, a city which had no chocolate maker. Today Lyons is the second city of France, a great gastronomic centre, and boasts hundreds of artisan chocolatiers. One is the renowned Monsieur Bemachon, who actually manufactures small quantities of chocolate, from raw cocoa beans, in his atelier.

For a short time in the mid-seventeenth century, chocolate went out of fashion at the French court, having been blamed for causing ‘vapours’ and palpitations. But at the same time in the English court of Charles II it was highly regarded. The court physician Henry Stubbe wrote The Indian Nectar in praise of chocolate. His opinion on the health value of chocolate was that it was nourishing, but too much sugar or spice was not good. He himself made the finest chocolate for the King’s use.

As we have seen, the diarist Samuel Pepys, having drunk too much on the day of the coronation ceremonies, took chocolate on 24 April 1661, ‘to settle my stomach’. His doctor, Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753), who was also physician to Queen Anne and George II, thought highly of chocolate’s restorative qualities. Born in Ireland, Sir Hans was evidently a great physician and intellectual, studying in Paris and Montpelier, and travelling to Jamaica, where he collected over 800 specimens of plants. It was there that he first recognized the therapeutic qualities of chocolate. He saw malnourished, sickly babies revive after taking a mixture of cocoa, and he is generally credited with being the first person to try mixing it with milk. However it seems that Sloane’s chocolate recipe was being marketed purely as a medicine. The recipe for the remedy was a closely guarded secret, which Sloane sold to an apothecary called Nicholas Sanders. Sanders had a shop at No. 8 Greek Street, in London’s Soho. The business, together with the secret recipe, were then sold to one William White. Through this connection, the Cadbury brothers eventually came to own the recipe, and they used it in their early pioneering of the highly profitable drinking chocolate market from the 1820s onwards.

By 1685 cocoa was already accepted by most physicians as being nutritious. It was widely used by the gentry, medicinally as well as socially. By the early-eighteenth century, quacks were beginning to take advantage of this reputation. In the Tatler newspaper (Issue No. 97) in 1709, a certain Mr Lawrence advertised: ‘Chemical quintessence of Bohee-Tea, and Cocoa-Nuts where in the volatile salts, oil and spirit of them both are chemically extracted and united.’ This medicine was to be obtained at his toyshop, at the sign of the Griffin in the Poultry, London.

Some physicians held strong opinions about the use of chocolate as a medicine. Dr Duncan, of the faculty of Montpelier, in France, noted in 1706 that coffee, chocolate and tea served a purpose as medicines ‘. . . while [unsweetened] they continued unpleasant, but once they were made delicious with sugar, they are become poison.’ If a few more people had shared the far-sighted Dr Duncan’s opinion, we might not have been left the legacy of over-sugared chocolate bars today. The main reason for this practice was an economic one. Sugar is considerably cheaper than cocoa, especially if produced from sugar beet, rather than sugar cane.

The reputed ‘medicinal’ effect of chocolate also found its way into folklore and superstition. Chocolate was supposed to be good for pregnant women, and in the eighteenth century one man described how after drinking chocolate his wife had three times given birth to twins. Madame de Sévigné indulged in a bit of scandal regarding chocolate in one of her letters. She reported that the Marquise de Coetlogon had given birth to a baby, reputed to be ‘black as an Indian’, apparently after drinking too much chocolate. Possibly the writer had her tongue in her cheek, knowing that another explanation was more probable.

By the nineteenth century, the image had changed slightly, and cocoa was now considered to be very much a man’s drink, appreciated by hunters and soldiers. Conan Doyle chose it for Sherlock Holmes’s breakfast. Cocoa certainly seems to have stood ‘real men’ in good stead, fortifying the mind, body and spirit.
Chocolate, too, has been greatly appreciated by men who have had to perform arduous tasks in the most extreme conditions of cold intensified by wind – none more so than arctic explorers and mountain climbers. Chocolate is the ideal emergency ration, because it offers instant energy, conveniently packaged. The 1924 Everest expedition carried plain chocolate, as well as supplies of nutmilk, vanilla, coffee and so on. When Sir Edmund Hillary conquered Everest in 1953, he was sustained by chocolate. One wonders whether Sherpa Tensing also developed a taste for it. . . .
Cocoa has been drunk by British sailors for over 200 years. The tradition began in 1780, when British ships were stationed in Antigua, at the centre of the cocoa-producing West Indies. A Royal Navy captain, James Ferguson, enjoyed the chocolate himself, and realized that this nutritious drink would be a valuable addition to the diet of men stationed in the West Indies. As it was locally produced, it had the additional advantage of being a cheap form of nutrition.
Later, Surgeon Trotter recommended that cocoa should also be given to the men in the Channel fleet. The coldness of these northern seas would have made cocoa even more welcome. In 1823 a ration of one ounce of cocoa per man per day was extended to the whole navy. The navy rum ration has been much publicized, but the less spectacular cocoa ration should take credit for building up the strength of ordinary seamen. Those who went to sea in the eighteenth century were often puny men who could find no other means of livelihood, many being press-ganged into service.
Until quite recently the Royal Navy used chocolate only in the old block form, which was full of cocoa butter and required grating into cups. The navy remained untouched by the nineteenth-century technology which produces today’s refined cocoa powder. Only in 1968 was the fatty chocolate block withdrawn and replaced by refined cocoa powder, no doubt to the dismay of some old-timers who appreciated the cocoa butter fat that warmed them on cold wet watches.
It is an astonishing fact that over half of the cocoa imported into England in the nineteenth century was consumed by the Royal Navy! The tradition continues in the military to this day, especially among the Americans who make sure that a Hershey bar is included in all army campaign rations. Recently the space scientists based at NASA have invested considerable sums of money in chocolate technology. They share the opinion that chocolate is the perfect, highly concentrated, nutritious, yet delicious food.
Chocolate has been an important part of our heritage for over a hundred years, and has now become inextricably linked with many of the ancient pagan and Christian feasts and fasts. Imagine Easter without chocolate eggs and bunnies! The rites of spring had been celebrated for thousands of years before the crucifixion of Jesus. In Roman times, Eostre, the goddess of dawn, represented spring and new life. Arriving each year on the vernal equinox, she was reputed to have taken the form of a hare, in order to distribute eggs around the countryside. Our modern day Easter egg hunts clearly have a distinguished ancestry.

In some countries chocolate is associated with other feasts and holidays. In Japan as in the United States, one of the most popular times for giving chocolate is St Valentine’s Day. The Japanese have adapted this western tradition. On 14 February girls give chocolate hearts to their loved one, and the gesture is reciprocated by the menfolk one month later on ‘Howaito’ (White) Day. There is also a custom called ‘giri choco’ (literally ‘duty chocolate’), which entails employees giving chocolates to their managers as a token of loyalty. In Holland the feast of St Nicholas, or Santa Claus, is celebrated on 6 December. All the children put out clogs to be filled by Santa with chocolate money, providing that they have been good. The idea of eating or being given chocolate as a reward has become firmly embedded in our culture.

Since cocoa became a part of European life, there have even been various conflicting papal rulings about chocolate. The first pope who tasted the drink found it so disgusting that he fell it unnecessarv to ban it. Others fell that, as a drink, it did not contravene the rigorous Lanten fasting laws. Others again deemed it to be a food. There is no doubt that part of the appeal of chocolate for many people is that it is forbidden and in some sense naughty.

Since Van Houten and Lindt’s contributions to chocolate technology, the introduction of chocolate moulds has been universal. Some of the most charming ones were made at the end of the nineteenth century, when the business of moulding chocolate was on a very small scale. Typically a specialist baker and confectioner would make a small amount of chocolate each day, and as all the moulds were filled by hand, it was possible to use lots of different forms. The French mould catalogue which appears on the endpapers in this book is full of weird and wonderful shapes, all of which were available off the shelf. Nowadays, as things scale up, we are left with much less choice; market forces determine which are the best-selling lines. There also seems to be a propensity towards rather kitsch cartoon character models, in place of the more realistic hares and other creatures from bygone years.
Cocoa seems to have been used widely from the middle of the nineteenth century onwards, and appears in the nutritional expert, Sir Jack Drummond’s, list of the food items in a typical poor man’s diet in 1939. They were: 2oz of sausages, 4oz of potatoes, 24oz of white bread, loz of margarine, 2oz of jam, loz of cocoa, loz of condensed milk with tea, and 2oz of sugar. The equivalent list that he gives for the middle class also contains loz of cocoa, which shows that by 1939 the food value of cocoa was recognized by most British people. The custom at this time was to eat a high tea, and to drink a cup of cocoa before going to bed to ensure a good night’s sleep. In World War II, as we have seen, the nutritional value of chocolate was recognized by its inclusion in the rationing schemes of several of the countries allied against the Germans.

The effects of chocolate on health have been debated for centuries. It has been accused at various times of causing migraines, pimples, obesity, tooth decay and even crises de foie (liver attacks – which seem to be a uniquely French ailment). These claims, I am glad to say, can now be seen as the myths they are. Hervé Robert, a French doctor, has done extensive research on the subject, and in his recent book Les Vertus Thérapeutiques du Chocolat has published the results of his own and other surveys into the effects of chocolate eating.

Robert concedes that there is a tenuous link between chocolate and migraine: ‘Chocolate contains a small quantity of tyramine, which in large doses can cause migraine. However, it is also present in far larger amounts in Roquefort, Camembert and other fermented cheeses. If chocolate is eaten after a heavy meal where red wine and cheese have also been consumed, the tiny amount of tyramine present in the chocolate may act as the trigger for a migraine, but only as the last straw that broke the camel’s back. So it would be true to say that chocolate by itself does not cause migraine.’
On the subject of acne, he refers to extensive surveys carried out in the United States which have concluded that there is no connection between chocolate consumption and spots in teenagers. He also maintains that those who blame chocolate for acne or migraines take no account of hormone imbalances, which may well be responsible for both ills. Often, for example, the sort of young person who suffers from skin problems does not have the healthiest lifestyle. Other factors such as lack of sleep, too much greasy food, not enough fresh fruit and vegetables, and too many junk chocolate bars - eaten as an instant energy fix in place of proper meals – are all likely to result in oily skin and spots.
The causes of migraine are often very similar. When a busy individual is working under stress, it may only be after many hours of frenzied mental activity that the realization comes of having missed a meal – or even several. Often one of the first things that come to hand is a very sugary bar of ‘junk’ chocolate. Any of these, either separately or together, may act as the final trigger, but certainly none of them would cause a problem when eaten as part of a sensible diet.
When I refer to ‘junk chocolate’, I mean the mass-produced, mass-marketed bars that contain very little cocoa, sometimes so little that it is not even included as a percentage in the list of ingredients. Really good plain chocolate should contain at least 50 per cent cocoa solids. In milk chocolate the cocoa solids ought to represent at least 30 per cent of the ingredients.
Fine chocolate, with cocoa solids above 50 per cent, can be a valuable part of a balanced diet, as it is naturally high in nutriments; it contains cocoa butter (which helps to lower the blood cholesterol levels), calcium, potassium, sodium, magnesium, iron, theobromine (a stimulant similar to caffeine), and vitamins Al, Bl, B2, C, D and E. Robert also states that diabetics may safely eat small amounts of chocolate, so long as it contains a minimum of 60 per cent cocoa solids.
Phenylethylamine, which is the naturally occurring ingredient in chocolate most often blamed for causing addiction, acts in a similar way to an amphetamine; it is an anti-depressant, which stimulates the brain and creates a state of euphoria similar to that of being in love. Perhaps this accounts for the familiar image of the love-lorn woman languishing in her boudoir, consuming boxes of chocolate creams. Casanova is said to have rated chocolate above champagne for its seductive and aphrodisiac qualities.
The chemical composition of theobromine in cocoa is almost identical to that of caffeine in coffee and theine in tea, and has similar effects. Like them it is an alkaloid which stimulates brain and muscle performance and gives a boost to counteract fatigue. In small doses it is certainly not harmful. The amount of this stimulant ingested through eating a moderate amount of chocolate would equate to the caffeine absorbed when drinking a moderate amount of coffee.
Sugar, of course, is held responsible for a number of our western ailments. On the subject of tooth decay and chocolate, however, Robert is once again reassuring:
’While it is accepted that the sugar content in chocolate encourages dental caries, the cocoa itself contains at least three substances which kill the streptococcal bacteria that lead to the formation of dental plaque.’
He also points out that when dentists classify foods which are most likely to lead to tooth decay, they place grapes, bananas, chips, cereal bars and bread above sugar. Chocolate comes below all of these!
The amount of sugar we absorb from chocolate depends entirely on the kind and amount of chocolate we eat. Chocolate with a high cocoa content, and therefore low in sugar, will not cause the great surges in the blood sugar levels which are probably the main reason for chocolate bingeing and addiction. Similarly, most of the additives found in junk chocolate are notably absent in really good-quality chocolate. In general it would be true to say that, with chocolate as with so much else, you get what you pay for. Don’t be put off buying very expensive bars, because with the best chocolate you will find that you need to eat much less of it.
So the moral of the story is that one should be discriminating about chocolate, learn to appreciate the best, and when buying it go for quality, not quantity. Good chocolate, eaten in sensible amounts, is not fattening, does not cause spots or migraines, and is a uniquely satisfying and sensual food. In fact it will do you good, so enjoy it!