So What Do You Call This Stuff Again?

Lots of food journalists write about the early history of chocolate. How Mesoamericans believed it was created by the gods, how they used it in sacred ceremonies, how quickly it caught on back in Spain and all that jazz. Yet European adoption of the strange brown bean wasn’t as speedy as most of those stories make it sound. It was Coumbus who first encountered chocolate in seed form in 1502, when he captured a small dugout canoe filled with it. He was nonplussed to say the least. Yeah, yeah food of the gods, blah blah created in the Garden of Life…SO WHERE’S THE GOLD???? Yet being a thorough sort of fellow he dutifully packed it up and hauled it back to Spain, where it was greeted with a collective shrug by the Castillian court. No one even knew the seeds were edible.

It wasn’t until some 20 years later, with Cortés’ invasion of the Yucatan, that Europeans started to catch on. At first disgusted by chocolate, which was served as a frothy lukewarm drink after Aztec meals, the conquistadores eventually started enjoying it. And so more chocolate seeds were packed and shipped back to Spain, only this time with processing instructions, for Cortés, so it’s said, had secured three different recipes for chocolate from the natives, one for a sauce, one for a paste and one for a drink.

The sauce never really caught on, though it’s interesting to note that a few conspicuous examples remain in continental cuisine. The Tuscans still eat duck and wild boar with savory chocolate sauce, and the Basques put it on rabbit. As for the paste and the drink (really one and the same thing, since chocolate paste is the precursor to making the drink), that was a whole different story, especially when they were mixed with sugar. The Spanish court became addicted, and in 50 years’ time were known throughout Europe for their skill in making chocolate drinks. Flash forward another 50 years (the mid 1600’s or so) and chocolate drinks were being enjoyed in Versailles and in posh parlors in London.

Not exactly the blink of an eye when you think about it, some 150 years from when chocolate was first “discovered” in the Americas to when it became truly popular on the continent. It would take another 200 or so before chocolate would be produced in solid form, an innovation that would finally lead to the thing we know as chocolate mousse.

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