All of us began our relationship with chocolate for emotional reasons. Chocolate symbolised a present, a sweet treat, a prize, a comforting cuddle, or even a way to counteract sadness.

Chocolate, in terms of the product we consume today, has been through a great evolution. Recently discovered records indicate it has been used for over three thousand years. It is believed that the use of chocolate dates back to the pre-Colombian civilisations of Central America, and it basically results from cocoa beans that have been fermented and roasted. Despite being popular, primitive civilisations used chocolate as a warm and bitter drink. Initially, however, it was reserved for the nobility, and then later for the upper classes of those civilisations. It was also an offering to the gods. Information gathered on the Mayan civilisation tells us of a bitter drink called xocoatl, which gave rise to the name ‘chocolate’ spread by the Spanish. At that time, the Mayans were already adding vanilla and pepper to it, and considered it to be a stimulating and invigorating drink with aphrodisiac properties. It continued to be used mainly in ceremonies in honour of the gods. However, due to its elitism, it was also used as a reference currency for trade purposes, and was even used in order to purchase slaves.

The first account of this product is dated 1502, when Christopher Columbus described the abundance of cocoa in those lands and how the natives held it in high esteem. But it was only in 1519, when Hernán Cortés discovered the world of the Aztecs, that there was a better understanding of how it was consumed. As it was a bitter drink, and not at all suited to European tastes, it was then that people started adding cane sugar, cinnamon and sweet anise to it. The Aztecs were already using its pressed powder form to mould it into chocolate slabs, thus providing them with a source of food on campaigns when they went for long walks. For them, it had energy replenishing properties – a notion that was later disseminated among the court of Charles V.

There are many stories showing how easily this delicacy spread. The Europeans did, in fact, have the merit of turning that bitter drink into a most appetising product. And even diabetics can take solace in the fact that there are some sugar-free chocolates they can eat, and others made with soya.

With the Discoveries, the Spanish brought cocoa and chocolate to Europe, where it became very popular as from the 17th century. It was considered a new product, and its use quickly spread. The fact that it was the Spanish who brought the chocolate over meant it was easily available in Spain, while in Portugal it was a very scarce product. So much so, that the famous Portuguese convent confectionery has no records of a recipe that includes chocolate, contrary to what happens in Spain where there are various convents and monasteries with chocolate specialities. Chocolate quickly became fashionable in the European courts; and after this initial consumption by the elite, it also became common among the lower classes. Although it was first consumed as a beverage, it soon gave rise to a variety of products such as slabs and bonbons. It must also be noted that many products are added to chocolate, ranging from sweet substances to others that are bitter, such as pepper and ginger, and the panoply of possible products would make for a never-ending list.

Nevertheless, it is necessary to write about the main types of chocolate, i.e. the chocolate bases. Thus, there is “dark” chocolate, the result of a high concentration of cocoa, with no milk and no sugar; and “milk” chocolate, possibly the most widely consumed, with added milk and sugar. Chocolate “powder” is another variety that usually refers to reduced-fat chocolate, often with no added sugar and suitable for making beverages. Then there is also “white” chocolate, which is sweetened and made with cocoa butter, milk and vanilla. And let’s not forget “frosting” chocolate, which has some cocoa butter and is used by professionals when making chocolate frostings or   finishings. The Spanish continue to consume chocolate as a beverage, and at breakfast it is quite common to see them enjoying a cup of chocolate and dipping their churros (a fried-dough pastry) in it.

I prefer “dark” chocolate, especially from Belgium,   as opposed to milk chocolate, which is sweeter. For me, chocolate is good when it has at least 70% cocoa. And in bonbons with a ginger filling, which are finger-licking good. It’s not for naught that chocolate is considered the food of gods.

Chocolate has been the target of much imagination, even in literature. In order to illustrate Aesop’s famous fables, Pedro Ernesto de Luna and Piero Cagnin created a recipe for “an apricot and date mille-feuilles on a chocolate ganache base with Banylus wine”. Even more creative is the recipe by Brigitte Bulard-Cordeau in her book “A Sorcerer’s Cookbook”. This author includes interesting and attractive texts alongside her recipes, especially for her “Sorcerer’s stuffed sweet roll”, aimed at prolonging pleasure, and which is very similar to our Portuguese chocolate salami, but with added hazelnuts and pine nuts. Recently, science has also shown that dark chocolate has some beneficial therapeutic functions as it stimulates both the brain and the circulatory system, apart from being considered an energy food. Naturally, if eaten in excess, it may lead to obesity.

Spain tried to plant cocoa trees, but without success. These trees, or plants, did not do well in Europe as they need a wet and tropical climate. Thus, even today, the great producers in the Americas are: Mexico, Bolivia, Brazil, Costa Rica, El Salvador and Granada. West Africa is another large cocoa-producing area, namely the Ivory Coast, Ghana, Madagascar, Nigeria, São Tomé and Príncipe and Tanzania. In Asia, we find significant production in the Philippines, India, Malaysia and Vietnam.

It said that it was Dom João VI, while still living in Brazil (1807-1821), who sent the first batch of cocoa to São Tomé and Príncipe in order to develop plantations there as he believed it had a suitable climate. And he was right. The island nation still produces cocoa of an excellent quality, which you can try in the different specialities offered at Corallo in Lisbon.

© Virgílio Nogueiro Gomes