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 drank it.

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 Gianduja.

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!"