CHOCOLATE, A STATE OF MIND
The emotions that you feel when you savour chocolate in any of its forms is not only a matter of tastebuds, but something more. In fact, in the past, chocolate has been considered something magical, even mystical, for its effect on the body and mind. It’s not a coincidence that the scientific name of chocolate is “Theobroma cacao” that literally means “drinks of the gods”.
Today the possible health benefits associated with chocolate consumption are widely known: it is rich in antioxidants, it helps to prevent cognitive decline and has anti-depressant and mood-elevating properties, just to name a few. So do not feel that guilty next time you eat a piece of chocolate!
A SWEET HISTORY
There is early evidence that a pure chocolate drink was used in rituals and ceremonies of Mesoamerican civilisations, among which cocoa was reserved to warriors, priests, government officials and of course the royal family, as a status symbol of nobility. It is said the Atzec king Montezuma used to drink a cocoa beverage before retiring to his harem.
The first cocoa beverage was prepared as early as 1900 BCE and finally arrived in Europe in the XVI century, thanks to explorers like Cristoforo Colombo, who brought some cocoa nibs back to the old continent and Hernando Cortés, that brought some cocoa plants to Spain.
At first the cocoa seeds was considered just a curiosity from the new world, but as in the XVII century sugar became readily available with a lowered price, the cocoa beverage recipe changed. It became more congenial to European palates, compared with the more bitter taste favoured by native Mesoamericans.
From Spain chocolate became very popular worldwide and chocolate bar houses sprang up in Italy, France, Great Britain, Flanders, Bohemia, Russia and United States. In chocolate houses it was served hot with sugar and cinnamon. Even if drinking this delicious beverage was very expensive, soon chocolate consumption was not more confined to the social elite.
CHOCOLATE IN ITALY
As said before, thanks to an Italian, chocolate arrived in Europe. We can’t help it, when it comes to things concerned to delicacies, we have a special instinct!
During their domination of Sicily the Spaniards introduced the traditional Mexican process to produce solid chocolate bars (Xocoàtl from Nahuatl words meaning “bitter water”). The process consisted in chopping cocoa beans and crushing them on a stone called Metate.
Today in the picturesque city of Modica it is still possible to taste this typical dark chocolate made with this ancient recipe, modified by the addition of sugar. The chocolate made in Modica, with no added vegetable fats, has a grainy consistence due to the sugar, that remains separated from the cocoa paste.
Florence, Venice and Turin were the first cities to start to produce and export chocolate across Europe, but soon the passion for artisanal products brought this sweet kind of production pretty much every where in the country. This made Italy become one of the most well-known chocolate producers in the world, still today.
In the mid of the 19th century chocolate production in Italy went through difficult times, due to the discontinuation of imports from England, sanctioned by Napoleon. Italian creativity did not take long in finding a solution: Piedmontese chocolatiers added hazelnuts, a local, cheap and readily available product, to the traditional chocolate mixture. The Gianduja chocolate was born with its delicate and gentle taste. The Giandujotto, made with Gianduja, is a worldwide famous triangular shaped chocolate wrapped in gold paper.
Another important Italian production area is Perugia, known for its innovative approach in chocolate making: still today it hosts the internationally renowned Eurochocolate, a festival dedicated to the chocolate culture, one of the most followed and loved chocolate event, that made this city the European capital of chocolate.
Milk, dark, hazelnut, Gianduja chocolate… Now, who wants some chocolate?