¡Oh, divino chocolate!Marcos Antonio Orellana
que arrodillado te muelen,
manos plegadas te baten
y ojos al cielo te beben.
Chocolate. It’s hard to imagine the world without it. You like it or not – it’s everywhere: lurks from the supermarket aisles, is one of the defining foods for festive occasions (chocolate Easter egg, anyone?), a staple in cafes and cake shops, and it even lends its velvety scent to shower gels and air fresheners for the car. Chocolate is inescapable in the modern world and no matter where in the world you are. But it hasn’t always been the case.
Even though the cocoa beans were consumed as long ago as 1400BC in the form of a bitter and spicy beverage by the Aztecs and Mayans, they only started their career in Europe in the second half of the sixteenth century. This mysterious brew was the ambrosia of the Americas: a drink so potent and invigorating that it was said to give one great strength. Cocoa beans were in high regard in the Mayan and Aztec societies, so important that they were even used as a form of currency.
On his fourth journey in search of the new trade routes in 1502, Christopher Columbus and his fleet encountered an unexpected storm and were forced to land on the Bay Islands (off the coast of today’s Honduras). During one of their excursions of the area, they came across a Mayan boat travelling from the Yucatan Peninsula. Intrigued by the large size of the vessel, Columbus ordered to stop the ship for inspection. He noted that it contained large quantities of what he referred to as almonds, and what in fact were cacao beans. But they did not impress the Spanish at the time.
After the conquest of Mexico, the Aztec emperor, Montezuma, offered Hernán Cortés and his companions fifty jars of foaming chocolate. He must have enjoyed it a lot since he liked to be served a few different varieties of chocolate at the end of the meal: served in golden cups, heavily spiced and coloured. It took the Spaniards awhile, however, to accustom to the bitter beverage that the Aztec nobility held so dear.
When two cultures collide, it is not in the osmosis-like process that changes occur; it takes much more to transform one’s long-lived habits or dietary preferences than encountering a culture that does things differently. Richard Wilk describes this process brilliantly in his book Home Cooking in the Global Village (2006). ‘The idea that foods and diets will “just mix” when they come into contact is clearly a vast oversimplification’, he says. In his book, Wilk analyses the emergence of the Belizean national cuisine, that was brought about through assimilating foods and eating habits of the many incomers to the country, and figuring out a way of eating that was distinctively Belizean. It can take generations for the new to feel like own.
So no, the Spanish did not fall in love with the funny-looking, dark-foam capped beverage that tinted the mouth of the drinker in a way that looked as if he just consumed blood. Chocolate, or cacahuatl in the local language, was described by the explorers and conquistadors of the time as disgusting, ‘a drink more suited for pigs than humans’. But when the food supplies brought from Spain shrank to almost null, it was the time to expand the horizons of the Spanish diet.
During the settling period, the Spanish started growing their own foods such as chickpeas, wheat, oranges and pears. They also introduced the cultivation of olives, grapes and sugar cane. Sugar cane was especially important, as, from the end of the 16th century onwards, the cocoa paste was sweetened with it. The addition of sugar and spices (like cinnamon or black pepper), and heating the cocoa until it melted instead of serving it cold were the factors that eased the chocolate on the Spanish palates. The resulting drink looked and tasted nothing like the watery, spicy cacahuatl of the Aztecs. The new chocolate was warm, sweet and spiced with familiar flavours that tasted of home.
It wasn’t until the mid 16th century when the Spaniards started exporting the cocoa beans back to Spain, after a period of accommodation in the New World, and Spain was the first country in Europe that enjoyed chocolate. It quickly became so popular, that it is said to be the reason why coffee culture has never made it quite at home in Spain. Chocolate was the drink of choice of nobility and clergy: refreshing, warm and sweet. The seventeenth century is sometimes referred to as the golden era of chocolate in Spain: chocolatadas, chocolate-centred parties had become a custom in the high society of the time. It was a social event, during which chocolate was served alongside cakes, brioches and other sweets. Sounds like a pretty good party to me!
The Spanish were not able to keep their secret for too long, though, and chocolate soon became known in France and Italy, and from there – to the rest of Europe. With Spain, however, it enjoys a love affair so unique, it is hard to believe that Spanish chocolate did not make it to the global headlines of the chocolate world. Balzac, not a great fan of the beverage himself, summarised the relationship this way:
“Who knows whether the abuse of chocolate has not had something to do with the debasement of the Spanish nation, which, at the time of the discovery of chocolate, was about to recreate the Roman Empire.”Honoré de Balzac
Debased or not, the Spanish continued enjoying their chocolate. Valencia region was where most chocolate factories were established in the 1800s when the development of the chocolate industry was in full swing throughout Europe. Some of them operate to this day, producing handmade chocolate that is heaven. During my two-month stay in Valencia, I had an opportunity to visit one of such factories, which is now also a Chocolate Museum. Located in Sueca, a small town a short train ride from the city, it has been in the hands of Comes family since 1870.
Comes Chocolate Factory and Museum is a family business that has been operating continuously since before 1870. The family members were descendants of the chocolate makers from Torrent, the town famous for its excellent chocolate. Pedro Comes Chulia (1858-1940) who is described as a ‘chocolate maker’ in his birth certificate, was married to Luisa Andreu Mora and had 8 children together. One of their sons, Bernardo Comes Andreu (1896-1982) decided to move the family business to Sueca, where, together with his wife Maria Matoses Expert, they set up a chocolate factory with the chocolate oven they brought along. ‘At that time, chocolate couldn’t be sold as nowadays, it was due to rationing and almost exclusively for soldiers’, we read on Comes website.
Encarna Comes and Pedro Melero were the founders of the Chocolate Museum, inaugurated in 2002. The museum is small, but it boasts original chocolate-making equipment purchased by the family when they first went into the chocolate business, as well as other chocolate-related accessories that were collected from all over the country. A visitor can touch a whole cocoa bean, see the chocolate preparation process, taste the chocolate mass and ready chocolates. All in the relaxed, not-at-all-museum-like atmosphere.
What is chocolate, then? According to The Concise Larousse Gastronomique, chocolate is: “a food product consisting essentially of a mixture of cocoa and sugar, to which milk, honey, dried fruits, etc., may be added.”
Chocolate bars in Comes factory are made by melting the cocoa mass with all other ingredients: sugar (or no sugar), milk (or no milk), lecithin and aroma (if added). The chocolate moulds are filled with the resulting mass and left to chill. When cold (after about 15 minutes), the moulds are shaken to ease the chocolate out, which is then individually wrapped in packaging.
What is interesting about Valencian chocolate, however, is the unique shape: cylindrical, cigar-like, easy to shape for the artisan, and easy to consume for the interested party. It’s called a bollet, and it’s made of unrefined chocolate with carob, very popular during the post-war period. What invigorates better than velvety, satisfying hug of chocolate? To quote Brillat-Savarin:
“Chocolate is one of the most powerful restoratives. Let any man who has spent working a considerable portion of the time that should be spent sleeping, let any man of wit who feels himself temporarily become stupid, let any man who finds the air damp, the time one and the atmosphere difficult to tolerate, let any man who is tormented by the obsession that prevents him from thinking clearly, let all those men dose themselves with a good half-litre of amber-coloured chocolate…and they will see a miracle.’Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin
How is the bollet made? Cocoa beans are roasted in a pan until the skin can be easily removed with fingers. Once the husk is gone, the beans are ground with a special rolling pin in the metate (chair-shaped grinding stone) that was previously warmed up. Once they transform into a uniform chocolate mass (very bitter at this time), the sugar and rice flour are added, and the mass is mixed again. Additional flavourings like vanilla, cinnamon or chufa (tiger nuts) can be also mixed in at this point. Then, it’s the shaping.
“We place 50 grams of chocolate mass on a rectangular piece of brown paper and we move it up and down until the mass becomes a cylindrical shape (bollet), letting it get cold in that form.”chocolatecomes.com
Each bollet is then individually wrapped in paper, one by one, and all by hand. They don’t only look cute, they taste awesome, too. I remember seeing these Comes bollet chocolates at Mercado Central in Valencia, long before I visited the museum. Guess what I did? Buy it, of course. No chocolate lover can walk pass something as intriguing as Valencian bollet.
There isn’t a better way of learning about the world than through food, I think. Standing there, in the chocolate factory in Sueca, I let my thoughts wander. Surrounded by the ancient tools, seeing the good olden ways the things used to be done, floating in the sweet aroma of cocoa beans being toasted, I wondered how different the world would be without this humble bean. I imagined Montezuma sipping a chocolate-water from one of his golden goblets, I imagined the reaction of the Spanish back in Europe upon receiving a cargo full of cocoa beans, I imagined the flavour of the Madeira-enriched hot chocolates served in England, and then the first chocolate bars manufactured in the Netherlands, France and Switzerland.
Nobody knew about chocolate in Europe before the 16th century, and I wonder if there is anyone who doesn’t know about it now. Holding a Valencian bollet, I pondered: how many people were involved in making it? Who grew the cocoa beans? Where did they come from? Food is so much more than a product on the supermarket shelf that we buy, and sometimes even throw away, uneaten.
“How fragile is the world so connected and tied together that a change in food fashion in one place can lead to starvation halfway through the world?”Richard Wilk, Home Cooking in the Global Village
Just a thought.
Enjoy the chocolate!