La storia del cioccolato
Thus begins the true story of the chocolate tree and an ancient people, the Aztecs, who drew strength
and wealth from it. They called in "Cacahualt" in honor of the god Quetzacoalt who made a gift of
chocolate to mortals before disappearing from the world. With time the word evolved into "chocolatl"
and this name translated substantially the same in all the European languages.
The natives of Guanaca offered the seeds of their precious plant to Cristoforo Colombo, who
undervalued the importance of the gift. This was a serious error because not only did chocolate beans
serve as the local currency, but the brew extracted from them gave enormous energy to those who
Twenty years later Emperor Montezuma made the gift of an entire chocolate plantation to the
explorer Fernando Cortez. Cortez had a hunch that there was a great deal of money to be made so he
decided to introduce the exotic brew to the Spanish court. With all respect for the Aztec civilization
of the era, the chocolate they drank probably didn't taste very good. It was a rather bitter concoction,
based on the toasted cocoa seeds and then ground together with peppercorns, hot pepper skin, ginger
root and honey.
It was probably the monks, traditional experts of mixtures and infusions, who refined the original
recipe, substituting vanilla and amber for the pepper and hot pepper skins. The Spanish idea of
marrying the mixture of chocolate with cane sugar brought the taste much closer to what we know as
hot chocolate today.
During most of the 1500s chocolate was a prerogative of the Spanish court, which imported cocoa
paste from its American colonies. Documents from the era mention some twenty different versions of
the drink, served at the Spanish court in the beginning of the 1500s, all with a spicy base and
sometimes enriched with an egg yolk or a pinch of potato starch.
Smugglers were careful to spread the word of the benefits of the exotic drink and stories circulated
throughout Europe, as testified by the travel notes of the Florentine Francesco Carletti. According to
some sources this world traveller introduced chocolate to the Italians during the 1600s. Others say
chocolate arrived in Piemonte with Catherine of Austria, daughter of Philip II of Spain and given in
marriage to Carlo Emanuele di Savoia. Yet another version claims that the Roman clergy spread the
word about chocolate in Italy through the Spanish court.
Documents demonstrate that the Roman curia took up the fashion of drinking hot chocolate. In 1569
Pope Pio V stated "ex catedra" that since it was categorized as a drink one did not break a required
religious fast by consuming it.
Italy was the second country in Europe after Spain to discover the exotic beverage and from the
middle of the 1600s Turin became the major center of production in Italy and one of the most famous
in Europe. It was the Torinese who combined ground hazlenuts with chocolate to create the famous
Strange as it may seem, chocolate arrived in Switzerland passing first through Italy. Some Italians
from Ticino, near Milan, not far from the Swiss border, introduced it to Switzerland towards the end
of the 1600s. We add with justified pride that Signor Cailler, who founded in Vevey (Switzerland) in
1819 the company with his name and became the first of the great Swiss chocolate producers, learned
his craft in Turin at the Caffarel Prochet factory.
During most of the 1700s chocolate was exclusively drunk in a cup and its preparation was a true rite.
Each royal court and noble family had its own "cioccolatiera" or chocolate-maker, a special waitress
capable of handling the little mill used to grind and loosen up the cocoa mixture.
The first solid chocolate sold in morsels appeared in the shops of the master confectioners at the
beginning of 1700. In the meantime all over Europe a new fashion was born, that of the coffee house,
where tea and chocolate were also drunk, and people could meet and socialize.
The first pastries and puddings with chocolate as a base were well-known by the Spanish court, but
first appeared in public in 1674 in London. The French with their imagination came up with tablets of
chocolate and vanilla as well as marrying meat with chocolate, as seen in the recipe "Chocolate
Duck" found in a volume printed in 1691.
The botanist Carlo linneo classified chocolate officially as "Theobroma cacao" but for the moment
let's leave the history of chocolate and see why chocolate has always been an irresistible temptation.
"To start with, it's just good," was Napoleon's answer to those who asked him why he drank so much
chocolate. At the time it was commonly believed that the pleasure derived from drinking chocolate
came from its beneficial properties. Sic stantibus rebus, it was known to cure everything and at the
same time it was contrary to everything: While on the one hand lauding its laxative and stimulating
effect it was also prescribed against insomnia and infantile dysentery. Among the old prescriptions
one of the most bizzare was that of "Iron chocolate", a mixture considered to be a tonic, based on
melted chocolate mixed with iron shavings! Even today experts argue about the advantages and
defects of chocolate, alternating conclusions. At every cry of alarm that bans chocolate from healthy
diets, a scientific finding immediately restores it.
Thus the biochemists at the University of Wales refute those who claim chocolate has too much
cholesterol by informing them that the cocoa butter from which it is made is a "good" fat which is
scarcely absorbed by the blood. Not only that, the University of Melbourne informs us that cocoa
contains a phosfopeptide that prevents caries in teeth.
The conviction that chocolate influences sexual impulses has ancient roots. Both the Emperor
Montezuma and Giacomo Casanova, who lived in different eras but were both famous for their
capacity as lovers, as evidenced by the many empty chocolate pots left in evidence.
It seems that the combination of pheniletilamine and theobromine present in cocoa is what
contributes to making chocolate a "love potion." Pheniletilamine, which causes euphoria, is also
capable of reducing depression in elderly people as well as pregnant women. Theobromine is a
stimulant slightly less effective than caffeine, which acts on the circulatory system.
We conclude our exposition about chocolate by expressing our surprise that the Swiss government
has decided to authorize Swiss chocolate makers to substitute palm oil for the traditional cocoa butter
supposedly in order to make chocolate more digestible and less likely to melt.
Just as Cardinal Mazarino said when they proposed to experiment with a new co- coa mixture: "Just
as long as it's still chocolate!"