A love of chocolate

Are you hoping your sweetie will recognize your relationship on February 14 with a heart-shaped box of chocolates? Or will you be the one paying a premium for a fancy box to express your love?

Among the people you can thank for this wonderful Valentine’s Day tradition of giving chocolate: Montezuma, Hernan Cortes and Richard Cadbury.

Chocolate comes from cacao, an ancient Mexican word meaning “God food.”  The Mayans brewed a spicy, bitter drink from the seeds of the cacao tree. The Aztecs lived farther north, where the cacao beans wouldn’t grow. They prized the beans above silver and gold, and used them as currency (100 beans could buy a canoe!).

Like the Mayans, the Aztecs enjoyed the drink made from cacao beans, which they called Xocolatl. The Spanish conquistadors corrupted the name of the bean to “cocoa” and the name of the Aztec drink to “chocolat.”

Cortes was probably the first European to encounter chocolate. Bernal Diaz, who accompanied him on to the court of Montezuma, wrote of the encounter:

“From time to time they served him [Montezuma] in cups of pure gold a certain drink made from cacao. It was said that it gave one power over women, but this I never saw. I did see them bring in more than fifty large pitchers of cacao with froth in it, and he drank some of it, the women serving with great reverence.”

So that explains how chocolate came to Europe, but how did it get inextricably meshed with Valentine’s Day?

The food of love

By the 1840s, Valentine’s Day had become a holiday to celebrate romantic love throughout the English-speaking world. The Victorians loved to demonstrate their love through elaborate cards and gifts.

The Cadbury company had been making chocolate in England since the 1820s. In 1854 the company received a royal warrant as manufacturers of chocolate and cocoa to Queen Victoria.

Richard Cadbury, son of the company’s founder, improved the drinking chocolate by developing a press that extracted the unpalatable cocoa butter from the whole beans. He used the cocoa butter to produce what was then called “eating chocolate” (as distinct from most chocolate, which was still consumed as a drink).

Richard Cadbury began selling his chocolates in beautiful boxes he designed himself. When February rolled around, he created heart-shaped boxes and decorated them with roses and cupids. He promoted them not only for the chocolates inside, but for the boxes that could then be used to store keepsakes. Original Victorian-era Cadbury boxes are valuable collectors’ items.

It probably wasn’t too hard a sell for Cadbury. Few of us don’t enjoy a piece of good chocolate – and there’s some science behind behind our appreciation of it. Not only is it good for your heart, because it’s rich in antioxidant polyphenals, but there are amplereasons why chocolate gives most of us an emotional boost.

Chocolate  increases the brain’s level of serotonin, the feel-good brain chemical. If you find yourself craving chocolate when you’re “down” and perking up when you eat some, you’re not just imagining the change. Serotonin contributes to many positive emotions, including increased sexual excitation, desire and responsiveness. Women may be more sensitive to the benefits of chocolate because they have more serotonin in their systems, making chocolate the perfect gift to give a gal on Valentine’s Day.

Here is a wonderful and very easy chocolate mousse recipe for Valentine’s Day or anytime. I got it from a friend soon after we were married and have been making it ever since. Be sure to use good quality chocolate chips. Top it with a dollop of real whipped cream and you have something that will make your sweetheart (of either sex) swoon!