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Friday, Sept. 6, 2002


The bittersweet business of chocolate

Special to The Japan Times

Rich, creamy chocolate . . . Can you resist it? If you can, you're one in a million. Most people's appetite for chocolate seems to know no bounds. Consumers can already choose from thousands of chocolate products, and yet new variants -- such as organic chocolate bars and chocolate-flavored soya milk -- are constantly being introduced.

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Our love for chocolate is no recent thing. It goes back more than 2,500 years.

But did you know that today's multimillion-dollar chocolate industry originated more than 2,500 years ago, in the discoveries made by the ancient peoples of Mesoamerica?

Beans, wonderful beans

Chocolate is made from the cacao bean, the seed of the cacao tree, which grows in the tropical parts of Central and South America. Some theories suggest that it was the Maya who first processed cacao beans to make chocolate. Their empire stretched from southern Mexico to Belize and was the most influential civilization in Mesoamerica from A.D. 250 to 900. Others argue that the Maya inherited their love for the cocoa drink they called xocolatl (pronounced choko-lat-ill) from the older empire of the Olmec, who coined the word "cacao" (and whose civilization around the Gulf of Mexico flourished between 1100 and 800 B.C.).

Xocolatl was a bitter drink made by mixing cacao beans with water, wine, corn flour and various condiments such as chili peppers. The Maya revered it, using it as part of their religious ceremonies, as well as a medicine for curing illnesses such as diarrhea and dysentery. It was drunk from special pottery, decorated with pictures and poetry lauding the cacao bean.

Later Mesoamerican civilizations, such as the Aztecs, who ruled a large empire in the 15th and early-16th century, also prized the drink.

Cacao goes global

When Spanish explorers landed in South America in the 16th century, they found xocolatl unappetizing. Nevertheless,they realized how important the cacao tree was to the Maya and named it Theobroma cacao, a Latin term that means "food of the gods." The tree is still known by this name today.

The Spanish sent treasure, such as gold and gemstones, back to Europe. They also sent unusual items they thought would interest their patrons. A consignment of cacao beans and xocolatl was sent to the Spanish royal court purely as a curiosity item. It wasn't appreciated until someone thought to replace the chilies with sugar.

At first, the new "chocolate" drink was reputed to be a health tonic, but as it became more popular, it began to be drunk for its flavor. Hot chocolate drinks soon became popular, but as chocolate was expensive only the extremely rich could afford them.

Scenting huge profits, the Spanish kept the chocolate recipe secret and maintained a firm monopoly on the cacao bean for almost 100 years. Despite their efforts, the secret behind hot chocolate was revealed at the start of the 1600s. Explorer Francesco Carletti is credited with visiting Central America, watching the locals make xocolatl and taking their recipe back home to Italy. When other European nations realized chocolate was made from the cacao bean, they became determined to secure their slice of the trade.

The biggest problem was that the cacao tree grew in territory that was occupied by the Spanish. Then the French conquered Cuba, and the Dutch took Curacao. Both nations cultivated cacao bean plantations in their new colonies. Cacao trees were also transplanted to other European colonies with suitable climates in Africa and Asia. These ventures proved successful, and the resulting increase in production put chocolate within the reach of ordinary people.

Chocolate remains a popular drink in Spain. Today it is made with dark chocolate, milk, water, sugar and a little flour to thicken it. It is served very hot along with deep-fried cigar-shaped pastries, a little like doughnuts, called churros (pronounced choo-rohs). A breakfast of churros dipped into hot chocolate is an excellent way to start a cold winter's day.

. . . then goes Dutch

Early European chocolate manufacturers would first roast the cacao beans and then crush them into a paste called chocolate liquor. This paste contained lots of oily cocoa butter and was quite difficult to work with. The chocolate industry was boosted in 1828 when a Dutch entrepreneur called Conrad J. Van Houten invented a machine that used pressure to squeeze large amounts of cocoa butter out of the cacao bean. This "Dutching" process produced a solid that could be ground into a fine powder. This new product was easy to work with and swiftly became a prized ingredient for bakers.

Some years later, in 1849, English chocolate-maker Joseph Storrs Fry came up with an idea that took the chocolate industry to new heights. He mixed cocoa powder with some sugar, added some of the previously extracted cocoa butter and produced the world's first chocolate bar.

A flurry of innovations followed from Swiss chocolate-makers. In 1867, Henri Nestle developed condensed milk as a baby product. However, chocolate makers found that it also gave their products a smoother, richer flavor. A decade later, Daniel Peter discovered a way to blend chocolate and milk powder, producing the world's first proper milk chocolate in 1879. The same year, Rudolphe Lindt introduced "conching," a process that simplified the making of smooth, rich and creamy chocolate.

Lindt's conching machine was built along the lines of the flour mills of that time. Steam engines powered heavy rollers that ran over a large stone surface, crunching up cacao beans, sugar, milk and other ingredients into a smooth paste. Lindt soon realized that his machine provided an unexpected benefit. As the rollers moved over the mixture, they became very hot. This heat was transferred to the mixture. Lindt discovered that anyone using his machine need not roast the cacao beans before hand. This shortened the manufacturing process. Conching machines today use the same principles, but they are controlled by computer and run on electricity, rather than by steam engine.

Food for thought

As consumers associate chocolate with celebrations, chocolate manufacturers have to be especially careful to preserve the positive image of chocolate. In Victorian times, consumers were worried about their tea, sugar and chocolate being diluted with brick dust and other cheap adulterants.

Today the emphasis is on sustainable farming and fair wages. Growing cacao trees isn't easy: It takes five years for a tree to produce its first crop, and farmers have to replace the trees every 25 years. Despite these problems, cacao beans have been a useful cash crop for many farmers living in tropical climates. Modern farming techniques mean better and bigger crops.

In the last few years, however, overproduction has led to serious problems in some West African cacao plantations. West African cacao bean farms were started in the 1820s, with Ghana, Cote d'Ivoire and Nigeria ranking among the top producers in the world. When media reports showed that some plantations were using unpaid child slave labor, however, chocolate consumers were alarmed. African cacao farmers say that recent overproduction of cacao beans has resulted in such a low market price that they cannot cover their costs or pay wages. Many have gone bankrupt while waiting for the prices to rise.

Today chocolate manufacturers are talking about plans to set up a system that rewards farmers with ethical labor policies and pays them a fairer price for their crop. Will this really happen? It's too soon to say. But if your chocolate bar costs a little more next year, let's hope it's because chocolate manufacturers are sharing their profits with the people toiling away in the cacao plantations.

For more information, go to The Field Museum's History of Chocolate at www.fmnh.org/Chocolate/history_mesoamerican.html This is a colorful and informative online exhibition describing the history of chocolate in the Mayan, Aztec and European societies. At www.exploratorium.edu/chocolate take a virtual tour of the Scharffen Berger chocolate factory near San Francisco and see how chocolate is made today. This site requires Real Video. Chocolate Valley at www.chocolatevalley.com is a huge site with articles about modern chocolate-farming, the history of chocolate, its medical uses, ecofriendly chocolate products and much more. Chocolate Cuisine at www.chocolatecuisine.com has more than 700 recipes using chocolate in sauces, soups, desserts, breads, drinks and snacks.

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