Origins of Chocolate and Vanilla

NYTimes – The world’s two favorite flavorings, chocolate and vanilla, were first used by the Aztec Indians of ancient Mexico. Chocolate was valued so highly that taxes were paid with it, and small bags containing a specified number of cacao beans were used as currency.

Accounts of the Aztec civilization reveal that “cacahuatl” or “chocolati,” delicately flavored with vanilla and spices, was the favorite beverage of the Indians. The Spaniards adopted the drink with enthusiasm. They introduced it to Spain about 1519, but kept its source a jealously guarded secret for almost a century. Its use spread slowly to other parts of Europe, reaching England by the mid‐17th century.

By the early 1700’s, “chocolate houses” had sprung up in a number of European capitals and the beverage was very fashionable. Linnaeus gave it an unqualified seal of approval when he named the tree Theobroma cacao (food of the gods).

An Aztec woman preparing the cacao drink. The liquid was poured from a height to create a froth or foam on top. Public Domain

The “chocolate” tree is a wide spreading evergreen which seldom grows more than 40 feet tall in its wild state. When cultivated it is usually pruned to about 20 feet. It has smooth, glossy, elliptic‐oblong leaves up to a foot long, alternately arranged. These appear mainly at the branch tips but sometimes grow on the main trunk. The clusters of small, pale pink, five‐petaled flowers appear on the trunk of the tree, along its main branches and even on exposed roots.

Each cluster usually produces a single pod, six to 14 inches long, shaped somewhat like a football, with 10 longitudinal ribs. When ripe, the rind is redor yellow‐purple in color. Inside each pod are five cells; each contains a row of seeds embedded in a pink, acid pulp. They are white, lavender or purple in color, about an inch long, with a fragile paperlike skin.

The trees are usually grown from seeds but sometimes are propagated by cuttings and graftings. They are shaded by banana or other plants. Trees begin to bear when about five years old and a fully grown tree produces from 20 to 40 pods a year.

Chocolate beans are prepared for use today much as they were in Aztec times. The pods are opened with a machete. Pulp and seeds are scooped out and allowed to ferment for three to 10 days. The seeds become plump and moist, turn an even red‐brown color and develop flavor and aroma. They are then separated from the pulp and dried in the sun (or artificially).

Further pod treatment includes roasting to develop color and flavor (and to facilitate shelling). Pods are then broken into particles called nibs and the shells are winnowed away. The nibs are ground to a cocoa or chocolate liquor which sets, when cool, into a hard brown block. About 50 per cent of the chocolate bean is cocoa butter.

Aztec. Man Carrying a Cacao Pod, 1440–1521. Volcanic stone, traces of red pigment. Brooklyn Museum/Wikimedia Commons

Vanilla, from the Spanish “vainella” (little pod), is the seed pod of a climbing orchid—the only important economic product of the vast orchid family. There are several varieties. Vanilla fragrans (V. planifora), indigenous to southeastern Mexico, is the main source of commercial vanilla.

The plant has a long fleshy stem rooted in the earth, and aerial rootlets which attach themselves to trees. Its ovallanceolate leaves are about eight inches long and two inches wide. The flowers are greenish ‐ yellow, about four inches across, and are arranged in many ‐ flowered racemes. About one flower in a thousand produces a pod. The pods are from six to 10 inches long and a half inch thick.

Vanilla pods are also prepared by fermenting and drying. The best ones are very dark brown, or almost black, and have a crystalline efflorescence called “givre” which is a criterion of quality. Fragrance is caused by needlelike crystals of vanillan which form the efflorescence. The vanillan is secreted by hairlike papillae inside the pods and diffused by the thick oily liquid which surrounds the seeds. The crystals are soluble in boiling water or alcohol.

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