Cocoa: food of the gods… It all started in 1520 with the reception of Cortès at the court of the Aztec emperor Montezuma. In an ornate, golden chalice The Spaniard was served a sweet, brown, vanilla-flavoured drink known as Tchocolatl or Xocolatl. Today, we call it chocolate.

During the Aztec era, cocoa beans were considered so valuable that they were used as a trading currency, and consumed solely by the social elite. A rabbit cost between 4 to 10 beans, a slave about 100 beans, a prostitute was 50 beans and around 3 to 4 beans were given to the poor as charity.  Imported from Mexico by Cortès, the Spanish were initially unsure about the Aztec drink, keeping its preparation and properties a secret. Eventually, curious Europeans adopted the sensuous drink, which soon became a fixture at high status parties.

Following its arrival in Spain, cocoa gradually spread to the rest of Europe. However, cocoa paste did not keep well, and the chocolate drink tended to curdle as soon as it cooled down.  That was until 1815, when the Dutch engineer Coenraad Van Houten invented the hydraulic press, which enabled the extraction of cocoa powder. In 1819, Jean-Louis Cailler improved his mixing method and added sugar. In 1830, he introduced an range of exotically-named chocolates with novel recipes like “pure caraque”, “commun sucré”…  These pioneers were joined in 1831 by Charles Amédée Kohler, who added hazelnuts to the mixture. In 1847, John Fry added cocoa butter to the beans/sugar mix, and molded the first chocolate bars. The progress continued with the invention in 1867 of milk chocolate by Peter and Nestlé (who invented powdered milk). In 1879, Swiss chocolatier Lindt invented a process known as conching, by which Fry’s mixture was blended for several hours, resulting in a glossy, more balanced and less acidic chocolate. In the 20th century, industrial advances made chocolate increasingly available to a mass audience.

Chocolate blurs the line between gourmet product and comfort food. Its many virtues are now scientifically proven. Cocoa contains polyphenols, antioxidants, vitamins B1 and B2, magnesium, potassium and theobromina  (which has the same chemical composition as caffeine in coffee and theine in tea).

There are three major varieties of cocoa tree, also known as Theobroma cacao (ancient Greek for ‘food of the Gods’). Criollo, the original tree, produces a fine, rare and aromatic cocoa. The quality of Forastero cocoa is slightly lower, representing 80 % of cocoa production worldwide. The Trinitario, a Criollo-Forastero hybrid, is native to the island of Trinidad. It is notable for its delicate and floral aroma.