This time of year is all about chocolate, as eggs of course but we are suckers for chocolate all the year, we are eating more than ever and it’s an addiction.
We have come a long way from the 16th century arrival of chocolate to the old world from the South American cacao tree and its cocoa seeds brought over by the Spanish and opening their first factory at home in 1580. The other scientific Greek name for the tree even translates as drink of the gods. The Mayan natives had been consuming it since the 8th century as a ceremonial custom, as face paint and even tribal battles were fought over it. The Spanish gave it the name chocolate blending words from Mayan for hot and water which is how they drank it. They also fine tuned its production and crucially later on added the sweetness through sugar cane.
By the 17th century Europe loved it with the Italians and French already making desserts from it. The Germans saw it as a medicine. It was even a currency at one stage it being so valuable. As a drink only at this stage it was more for the upper classes and favoured by the ladies of the time with Chocolate houses all over Europe. The English added the milk bit to it. In the 19th century the Quaker families of Terry’s, Rowntree’s, Cadbury’s and Fry’s set up factories in England, Lindt and Nestle were in Switzerland where they made the first milk chocolate and the rest as they say is history. The Dutch were important players in the story giving us the word cocoa itself and figuring out how to split the butter from the bean creating the powder and hence the bars in the 18th century. White chocolate is just the blend of a concentrated milk solid and cocoa fat so not really a chocolate per se.
The properties of chocolate were long known as a stimulant with its caffeine, fat and sugar, it has a chemical that gives a euphoric feeling to the human brain and so is touted as an aphrodisiac. It’s very nutritious giving us good energy levels along with protein and iron. A very concentrated food then and is ideal for tiding over the tummy and the perfect snack for travel and survival situations. Its stores so well too though not in extreme heat of course. Its bean varieties are graded, blended and tasted just like in the coffee, tea and wine world.
Cooking wise chocolate has been a revelation. The quality of it varies though so be careful not to use so called cooking chocolate in cooking as was advised in a master class I once attended by a Swiss chocolatier as it really is not real chocolate. It’s thanks to the rationing of it during previous wartimes that chocolate became diluted and so the inferior type was born and remains to this day with the cheaper the chocolate the less taste. You just cannot turn a kilo of the real stuff into two kilos of what might look like chocolate but is far from it. So don’t scrimp on it, buy the good brands and enjoy the quality that this brings. The Europeans are much stricter on this tampering with their chocolate laws and explains why it always tastes better there.
For desserts I am a fan of both making and eating mousses and tarts from it and it marries well with everything from chilli to alcohol so its versatility is vast. It is even used in savory dishes like sauces for game. My favourite recipe would be a French dessert called Chocolate Marquise which is quite complicated to make but really worth the end result.
So when it comes to your Easter eggs less is more, spend the extra few Euros and make it last longer, it’s not for wolfing down, chocolate needs to be savoured on the palate, melted slowly and enjoyed for its pure depth and sensuality.