Surely, no series of Advent Botany would, could or should be complete without the divine chocolate!
Linnaeus named the cocoa tree Theobroma cacao which literally means “Food of the Gods” reflecting the truly reverential status in which the tree is held. The cocoa tree is small, not unlike a dwarfed apple tree in size, and is native to the tropical Amazonian forests. Over 3,500 years ago the Olmecs of Mexico were the first civilisation to use cocoa beans widely. They roasted and ground the beans, mixed in vanilla, chilli and spices to make a cold, bitter, savoury drink. The powers imbued by chocolate were thought to include spiritual wisdom, physical stamina and enhanced sexual prowess, what’s not to love about it?
Later it was discovered that judicious use of sugars could turn this bitter gruel into such a sweet devine delight that inevitably choco-mania spread throughout Europe. Plantations were established in other equatorial countries and West Africa is now the centre of world cocoa cultivation producing 70% of the world’s cocoa with four major cocoa producers – Ivory Coast, Ghana, Nigeria and Cameroon.
Chocolate is made from a fruit – the cocoa bean – and around 50 almond-sized cocoa beans are contained within a cocoa pod, enough to make about eight bars of milk chocolate or four bars of dark chocolate. No doubt due to generations of inbreeding Cocoa is very prone to diseases and scientific research into disease resistance is a key element of the International Cocoa Quarantine Centre based at the University of Reading.
Britain really is a nation of chocolate lovers consuming 11kg per person per year on average – about 3 chocolate bars a week. The UK chocolate industry is worth more than £4billion and sales of chocolate (most recently in dark chocolate products) just keep growing and growing. Several of the big names in chocolate today – Cadburys, Fry’s, Terry’s, Rowntree’s – were founded by Quaker families keen for chocolate to take the place of alcohol the consumption of which they viewed as a major sin, whereas chocolate was just a minor vice!
Chocoholism is a completely explicable natural human response if we consider our ancient roots, when energy rich (fat and sugar) foodstuffs would have highly prized survival-linked value! Today we hardly need chocolate to survive and excessive consumption contributes to obesity, but in moderation there are benefits. Chocolate contains over 300 chemicals including vitamins and minerals, even the smell of chocolate can induce relaxation and a cup of pure cocoa has twice the antioxidant content of green tea. Chocolate contains phenylethylamine which is released naturally in the body when ardour is inflamed, it also contains dopamine – a natural painkiller – and serotonin which produces feelings of pleasure. With over 400 distinct smells (a rose has just fourteen) no wonder chocolate was, and still is, considered the divine aphrodisiac!
Want more chocolate?
Well, for a good comforting chocolaty read (even more tasteful than the Greek Eurovision entry) check Professor John Warren’s post on divine chocolate and discover why chocolate is the substance of choice for the top suppository manufacturers, get some amazing insights into the sex lives of the chocolate plant and find out exactly how many beans might be needed to secure the services of a lady of the night (in Mayan society at least!).
Also lots more yummy chocolate facts and figures from divinechocolate.com here