Tuesday, January 29, 2013

One Sweet World: On the Trail of Chocolate

The cacao tree grows only in the tropics. Yet it's in cooler climes that this plant's beloved product, chocolate, has a voracious following. Europeans lead the pack, with Switzerland, Germany, and Belgium trading off for first place from year to year in per capita chocolate consumption.

Most Europeans take their chocolate in the form of candy. The relatively new concept of selling chocolate in solid form was hatched in London in 1847. Before that, chocolate was for drinking. Probably as early as 1000 B.C., the Olmec were cultivating Central America's native cacao. A thousand years later, the Maya downed shakes of unsweetened chocolate and water. Maya nobles visiting Spain with Dominican friars in 1544 introduced a cocktail of roasted and ground cacao beans, water, wine, and peppers. Sugar was added, and the drink caught on in Europe. 

Chocolate's popularity sparked the spread of cacao cultivation. Trees were imported to the Dutch East Indies in 1778 and Africa in 1822. Though Africa now produces two-thirds of the world's cacao beans , Africans themselves consume little chocolate.  One reason: meltdown. Cocoa butter, the fat of the cacao bean, liquifies near 90°F, making chocolate melt easily in a 98.6°F mouth - or in a hot climate. Candy needs constant refrigeration if it's in a hot place, and most developing countries can't offer that. Additives for heat-resistance  interfere with chocolate's creaminess, so until scientists solve that problem, citizens of cool (or cooled) countries will likely continue as the champion chocolate eaters. 

                                                                                                                    - Margaret G. Zackowitz, National Geographic, April 2004