Chocolate, a sweet almost everyone adores, comes from the Aztec word “xocolatl”, which translates to bitter water. Once a sour drink, it’s now something we crave, find comforting and delight in eating. Today, it’s available in almost every percentage, flavour and label – including overly sweet varieties, handmade bespoke options and raw, health-beneficial assortments.
Chocolate boasts over 4,000 years of history and although it’s now classed as a sweet treat, it was once consumed as a bitter drink. Research indicates it originated as early as 1900 B.C and was once produced by pre-Olmec cultures. In order to create this drink, cocoa beans from tropical cocoa plants were fermented, roasted and ground into a paste. They were then mixed with vanilla, water, honey and spices to create a frothy, warming chocolate beverage. Just as it is now, chocolate was considered to be an aphrodisiac, a mood enhancer and a reviving beverage. Because of these reasons, the Mayan, Olmec and Aztec civilisations believed chocolate to possess spiritual and mystical qualities, and therefore reserved it for priests, rulers, nobles and warriors. Chocolate became so coveted that the Aztecs later used it as a currency – 100 beans could buy an entire turkey.
In the 1500’s, the Spanish set out for Mexico to source silver and gold and instead, returned with cocoa beans. Unlike others who used these beans to create a bitter drink, they added cinnamon and cane sugar to create what we now know as hot chocolate. Although the flavours changed, chocolate still remained an emblem of wealth, luxury and power. At this time, it was only Spanish elites who were able to indulge in this exclusive luxury. Spain kept this delicious treat a secret for an entire century. It was only when King Philip III’s daughter married the French King Louis XIII that chocolate travelled further afield. As soon as the French learned of this delicacy, it fleetingly spread to other parts of the world.
In 1828, the Dutch chemist Coenraad Johannes Van Houten invented the cocoa press. This transformed the creation of chocolate, turning it into an art form. Instead of bitter chocolate, the cocoa press allowed for sugary, sweet inventions, all of which were easily digestible. The British chocolate company J.S. Fry & Sons were the originators of the first solid chocolate bar, which was created from cocoa powder, butter and sugar. Next came the conching machine, which was invented by Rodolphe Lindt. This allowed chocolatiers to create a smooth milky, creamy concoction; a little like the creations available today.
How is chocolate made?
Chocolate is made using cocoa beans, which can be found on cacao trees. These only tend to grow 20 degrees north and south of the equator, in places such as Hawaii, West Africa and Asia. In order to make chocolate, both the pulp and the cocoa beans are fermented together. The fermented beans are then left to air dry – this usually takes place in the sun, but depends on where the cocoa beans are grown. Once dry, they are moved to a chocolate factory where the beans are either combined with other variants of bean from different origins, or are used solely to create “single-origin” chocolate.
Types of chocolates
There are various types of chocolate available, all of which are catalogued according to their cocoa content. The temperature the cocoa beans are roasted at plays a part, as do the flavours added and the process used to make the chocolate in question. In simple terms, there are two adaptations of chocolate – milk and dark. Milk chocolate comes in the shape of a solid chocolate created using a high percentage of milk (usually in the form of liquid milk, milk powder or condensed milk). Dark chocolate, which is often labelled ‘plain’ chocolate, contains a high percentage of cocoa and less milk. Combining cocoa with both sugar and fat creates this style of chocolate. Certain plain chocolate variants contain no sugar and come in a raw form. Only seasoned chocolate enthusiasts will dare to try 100% dark chocolate, which contains no milk at all. Other variants of chocolate include unsweetened chocolate, bittersweet chocolate and semisweet chocolate. Additionally, today’s confectioneries include sweet baking chocolate, used in cooking, and unsweetened cocoa powder, which is used to make hot and cold chocolate milk. For those who prefer a softer, less bitter taste, white chocolate is available. This type of chocolate boasts a combination of sugar, cocoa butter, milk solids and vanilla flavouring and only a small percentage of cocoa.
Chocolate production around the world
Cocoa originated in Central America an impressive 5,000 years ago, yet despite this, both the production and popularity of chocolate have grown at a global scale. Today, a number of nations harvest and produce cocoa beans, all of which are grown to fulfill the world’s sweet tooth. Research from the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation has listed a number of top global cocoa producers, including the likes of Brazil, the Dominican Republic, Peru and many more.
The Dominican Republic: If you’re looking to source chocolate the ethical way, purchasing chocolate from the Dominican Republic is a must, as they have taken a global lead in more than one way. The government has rules and regulations in place that ensure cocoa production is done in an environmentally sustainable manner. Until 2009, this part of the world was at the top of its game in “Fairtrade-certified” cocoa production, and still remains a leader today. This ensures the farmers’ producing cocoa beans receive ample compensation for their crops. The Dominican Republic boasts two styles of chocolate, a mainstream, buttery product known as Sanchez, which is often much cheaper to purchase, and a drier, well-fermented bean called Hispaniola.
Peru: Although there is fierce competition over the agricultural land in Peru, this part of the world is still renowned for its cocoa crops. In fact, it is here that you’ll stumble upon some of the rarest cocoa beans, all of which are used to craft single-origin and premium chocolate bars boasting a natural aroma and rich flavour.
Ecuador: Ecuador’s cocoa industry is one of the world’s first-born. It was in the Ecuadorian Amazon that archaeologists only recently exposed traces of cocoa in pottery, said to be more than 5,000 years old. The country certainly honours this long-standing history with an output of almost 128,500 tons.
Brazil: This part of the world tends to devour more cocoa than it sells. They boast a varied range of over 140 cacao varieties, meaning there is a taste and flavour for everyone. The traditional chocolate consumed here has a strong, rich flavour, with hints of uplifting fruity and earthy elements. The man areas of Brazilian cacao production are Manaus in the North Central Amazon and Bahia in the Eastern Coastal region.
West Africa: This part of the world produces more cocoa than any other region, supplying two thirds of the world’s cocoa crops. Of that total, around a third of global production takes place in the Ivory Coast, making it by far the world’s largest producing country.
Indonesia: It wasn’t until the early 1980s that Indonesian cocoa production took full flight. It is now the world’s second chief producer of cocoa beans, and although the World Cocoa Foundation figures often don’t match those of the UN FAO, both agree that it is the largest producer outside of West Africa.
Ghana: It is here cocoa is deemed the king, with cocoa production accounting for a sixth of the country’s GDP. The majority of cocoa farms in this area define themselves as smallholder farmers, meaning the cocoa produced is both owned and maintained by families and farmers who live on the property.
Chocolate industry around the world
Although chocolate is still very much a treat enjoyed by those who have a sweet tooth, the chocolate industry’s recent growth is down to the health benefits of cocoa. Over the last decade, many nutritionists have boasted about the benefits associated to this food type. This has created a powerful demand for cocoa and cocoa farms – on both a local and global scale.
Today chocolate is one of the most prevalent and widely consumed products in the world. North America is leading the masses concerning the consumption of this delicacy, and they’re shortly followed by Europe. With so many variants to choose from, including everything from white and milk chocolate, to health-beneficial raw bars filled with fruit and natural flavourings, chocolate’s increasing popularity comes as little surprise. Those who would have once saved chocolate for a cheat day or a treat are now consuming it more regularly.
West Africa’s dominates cocoa production, particularly the likes of Ghana and the Ivory Coast. However production of this food type has begun to expand and around 17% of production now takes place in America (mainly South America) and 9% in Oceania and Asia.
Chocolate production is set to increase even further over the next few years, as it can take a new cocoa plant up to 3-5 years to yield a crop. Global production of cocoa is therefore a big business, often suited to international companies. Small, individual farms have less money to pump into the company and quite simply can’t afford to wait up to five years for a return on their investment. This doesn’t mean a number of these smaller, bespoke chocolate farms can’t exist and there are a variety of new start-ups and specialist chocolate brands hitting the shelves today.
With chocolate now a health beneficial food, more and more of our health conscious generation are taking an interest in the cocoa bean. This is one of the reasons premium and dark chocolate variants are amongst the highest ranking on the market today. Unique, raw and one-off products and experiences are ensuring consumers stay interested. Many now add chocolate and raw cocoa nibs to the likes of salads, soups and smoothies.
On a global basis, cocoa continues to grow in Asian Pacific countries. Consumers in these parts of the world are now becoming more accustomed to the tastes of the “western” world and as such, the demand for chocolate is booming. These changing tastes are also venturing to China, India and other nations, with some analysts predicting a 30% increase in the global demand of cocoa by 2020.
Where can you purchase chocolate?
Standing as one of the most popular food types in the world…it seems you can get chocolate almost anywhere. At the top of the pile are supermarkets are the largest stockists, followed by outlets, convenience stores and specialist chocolate shops. Then there is the World Wide Web to consider, which allows connoisseurs to purchase chocolate from all over the world – and in bulk! Confectionary stores make up only 5% of sales; however, they tend to supply higher end, niche products – all of which are growing in popularity.
Chocolate and nutrition
At one time, chocolate was believed to be an exquisite treat and something you would indulge on a cheat day. With so many types and variants available today, this is now far from the case, with more and more of us devouring the likes of cocoa nibs and raw chocolate as part of a nutritional diet. In fact, dark chocolate has many proven health benefits, including:
• It’s one of the best antioxidants in existence.
• Dark, pure chocolate made with high quality cocoa (the type that isn’t loaded with sugar and milk) is said to improve health and lower the risk of heart disease.
• It contains both minerals and soluble fibre, some of which include copper, manganese, potassium, zinc, selenium, phosphorus, magnesium and iron.
• Raw, unprocessed cocoa beans are one of the best super foods you can eat.
• Dark chocolate may lessen blood pressure and improve blood flow – this is down to the flavanols found in pure chocolate, all of which are said to stimulate the lining of the arteries.
• Dark chocolate may also lower the risk of cardiovascular disease as the compounds in this food type appear to protect against the oxidation of LDL cholesterol.
• Certain studies suggest that plain chocolate may also protect your skin against the sun, this is down to the bioactive composites it contains and because research suggests cocoa can increase hydration and skin density.
• Dark chocolate may heighten brainpower as it can increase the blood flow to the brain. Certain types of dark chocolate are loaded with theobromine and caffeine – two keys ingredients said to improve brain function.
Chocolate’s many uses
Asides from being the main ingredient in the humble chocolate bar, chocolate is also used in various savoury dishes, and is often paired with game meats such as venison. Other uses include candy coating, which is known as ‘compound chocolate’ coating and is used to coat the likes of cakes, sweets and nuts. In order for the chocolate to create a mould around another ingredient, the majority of the cocoa butter is removed and replaced with vegetable oil or fat. This allows for a higher melting temperature and a shiny finish. Today, it’s available in a variety of colours and flavours.
Chocolate featured in movies
Asides from an enjoyable and sought after delicacy, chocolate isn’t solely limited to the confectionary store. Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, released in 1971, was a hit with many, both young and old!
In 2008, a martial arts flick titled ‘Chocolate’ was released. With its romantic plot, spectacular stunts and extraordinary protagonist, it was an instant hit.
Chocolat – a British-American movie all about chocolate and romance was a huge success when it hit screens in 2000. The film tells the story of a young mother, played by Juliette Binoche, who moves to a fictional, suppressed village in France (Lansquenet-sous-Tannes) with her six-year-old daughter. It’s here she opens what is to become the villagers’ favourite chocolate shop – La Chocolaterie Maya. Her chocolate fleetingly begins to change the lives of the locals.
The chocolate scene in Matilda, where Bruce Bogtrotter commences to stuff his face with what appears to be an endless amount of chocolate cake, is enough to put anyone off over indulging for life…or not!
And we can’t forget the epic chocolate fountain scene in Bridesmaids and the chocolate frogs in the book-turned-movie, Harry Potter.
Asides from the movies, chocolate has played a starring role in a number of popular television shows, including the Simpsons, I Love Lucy, Sex and the City, Seinfield (in which it made several memorable appearances) and Friends.
Chocolate and the arts
As well as moviemakers and directors, artists are beginning to use chocolate in their work. From melting it down and using it as body paint, to creating towering, detailed creations in the shape of cakes, candy and edible arts – there are a number of ways art and chocolate can be combined.
With so many uses for this popular food type, it is little wonder chocolate is bigger than ever. In fact, it generates a turnover of more than £50 billion per year!