Posted on Leave a comment

Chocolate for Father’s Day by Fathers, Daughters and Sons

selection box of father and son/daughter chocolate teams

Celebrated for over 100 years (at least in the US), and in various permutations (such as as St. Joseph’s day) for even longer in other parts of the world, Fathers’ Day hasn’t really ‘taken off’ in quite the same way as other events, like Mothers’ Day.

We are trying to fix this with a Fathers’ Day craft chocolate gift from five different teams of fathers, daughters and (one) son/grandson comprising:

This box is priced at £24.95 (a saving of over 15%) and for more details please see below. We’ve also a range of other great Fathers’ Day presents including pairings with wine, whisky and more, plus some great tasting courses.

And if you’d like to know a little more about the origins, and different forms of celebrations, surrounding Fathers’ Day please read on.

The History of Fathers’ Day

In Italy, Spain, Portugal or Bolivia Fathers’ Day is celebrated slightly earlier than elsewhere, on the Feast of St. Joseph on March 19th.

But unlike Mothers’ Day, which at least in Europe is rooted in another religious tradition (the idea of returning to your “mothering” church), St. Joseph’s Day doesn’t appear to have given rise to the modern tradition of Fathers’ Day.

In most other countries Fathers’ day is celebrated on the third Sunday of June (for some reason Austria, Ecuador and Belgium celebrate on the second Sunday; if you know why, please do comment below!). And the origins of Fathers’ Day are attributed to two initiatives started in the USA. The first occurred in Fairmont, West Virginia, July 5th 1908 when Grace Clayton suggested to the minister of the local Methodist Church that they hold services to celebrate fathers after a deadly mine explosion killed 361 men. The alternative backstory to Fathers’ Day occurred a year later 1910 in Spokane, Washington State. This story credits Sonora Smart Dodd for the idea; with her inspiration being a Mothers’ Day sermon, where she decided that fathers; like her own father,  William Smart, a veteran of the Civil War, who after the death of his wife raised six children with “hard work and love” on a small farm; should also be thanked and have a special day.

The idea received considerable political support. And it was also promoted by various retailers and gifting companies. However it wasn’t until 1966 that President Lyndon Johnson designated the third Sunday in June as “Fathers’ Day”. And it was only in 1972 that President Richard Nixon, recognised Fathers’ Day as an official holiday.

It’s not clear when Fathers’ Day started to be celebrated here in the UK. Anecdotally, it’s hard to find anyone celebrating it much earlier than the 1980s. Today however is a different story. In 2021 retail spending on Fathers’ Day was estimated to be £951 million pounds, up from £743 million in 2017.

However, this is dwarfed by the $20 billion that is estimated to be spent in the US. And the US spent a further $32 billion on Mothers’ Day versus £1.6 Billion in the UK.

Speculation on Why Fathers’ Day Lags Behind Mothers’ Day

It’s interesting to speculate as to why Fathers’ Day ‘lags behind’ Mothers’ Day; and a host of explanations can be put forward:

  1. Mothers’ Day has a far longer history. Since Medieval times, the church has celebrated ‘Mothering Sunday’ far more than St. Joseph’s Day (aka Fathers’ Day). And in the US, Mothers’ Day was made an official holiday back in 2014 versus 1972. So Mother’s Day has a richer set of traditions to call on.
  2. Fathers’ Day was also almost derailed back in the 1920s and 30s when various attempts were made to scrap Mothers’ and Fathers’ days in favour of a single holiday, “Parents’ Day”. Indeed for about a decade, every Mothers’ Day, pro-Parents’ Day groups rallied in New York City’s Central Park arguing “that both parents should be loved and respected together” (Robert Spere, radio performer). Retailers however were horrified. And they came up with all sorts of smart advertisements to promote Fathers’ Day as a “second Christmas” for men, and in particular pushed the idea of honouring the US’ “fighting fathers” during World War 2.
  3. There haven’t been any great presents for Fathers’ Day. Mothers’ Day has a wealth of great present ideas associated with it; cards, flowers, lunches out, etc. Socks, gardening tools, woolly hats and the like arguably don’t resonate for Fathers’ Day in quite the same way. However now we have a perfect present: This Fathers’ Day please gift some great craft chocolate that tastes better, is better for them, better for the farmers and better for the planet. And it’s crafted by a father and daughter/son team so it provides a great backstory and link.
Posted on Leave a comment

Mexico: The cradle of chocolate?

cuna de piedra team

The name of one of our makers, Cuna de Piedra, translates as “cradle of the stone”; a play on Mexico’s description of itself as “cuna de cacao”(cradle of cacao). This play on words gives us pause to celebrate and explore Mexico’s contribution to the world of cocoa and chocolate (as well as do a little debunking and etymological sleuthing on the origin of the word ‘chocolate’).

Cuna de Piedra

Enrique Perez and Vicky Gonzales started their dream of Cuna de Piedra after a phone call in March 2019. Both loved chocolate, and both were looking for a product that would raise Mexico’s standing as a country with fine food (Enrique is a food consultant) and high-quality design and workmanship (Vicky is a designer and brand strategist).

Within six months in November 2019, they were able to launch their company and first bars. They work with a sister company, Revival Cacao, to source their beans. The two companies work together with farms and co-operatives in both Comalcalco, Tabasco and Soconusco, Chiapas. And it’s fantastic to see the quality of bars and beans they are achieving as they help the farmers upgrade their harvesting, fermentation and drying approaches.

As is to be expected, given Vicky’s background as a designer, their packaging does a fantastic job of explaining Cuna’s purpose and ambitions (indeed, barely a week goes by without a new design magazine featuring their bars). In particular as you unwrap the bars, look out for their motto that is playfully spelt out across the letters of the bars that translates as:

Mexico, Cradle of Cacao, from Bean to Bar

A rebirth for chocolate in Mexico?

Cuna de Piedra and their sister company, Revival Cacao, are part of a renaissance of chocolate, and in particular, heirloom cacao and craft chocolate, in Mexico.

And it’s not a moment too soon. Despite Mexico’s long history with chocolate and cocoa, the last few decades have been hard for cocoa farmers and chocolate in Mexico. At the turn of the 21st century, Mexico was growing over 50k tonnes of cocoa a year. This halved by the early 2010s, meaning that Mexico was a net importer of cocoa and chocolate. In part this was the result of Mexico being devastated by various cocoa blights; in particular frosty pod. But it also reflects Mexico’s move to commodity crops such as palm oil and maize, with attendant deforestation and destruction of cocoa trees.

Despite these challenges, various craft chocolate makers; Bonnat, Ritual, Krak, Goodnow and Original Beans to name but a few; have discovered the potential of the amazing beans available in Mexico (see below for some examples).

And at the same time, craft chocolate making is now starting to take off itself in Mexico. Ana Rita Garcia Lascurrain helped kickstart this by setting up her chocolate museum and then crafting her own bars (Mucho). And it’s great to see Cuna de Piedra joining these ranks.

Mexico and the History of Chocolate

Read any history book written before the 1990s and Mexico will appear as the “cradle of chocolate”, crediting the Olmecs with being the first people to cultivate and consume cocoa and chocolate over thousands of years ago.

Recent archaeological work has now pushed cocoa’s fermentation and consumption (as a drink) back a few thousand years earlier to modern-day Ecuador and Peru, where the Theobroma cacao tree can first be traced. So Mexico has lost its claim to be the first place cultivating and drinking chocolate.

Any which way, the Olmecs, Mayans and Aztecs were HUGE fans of chocolate. At certain periods cocoa was reserved for royalty, warriors and high priests. And one of the first descriptions of Montezuma, the last Aztec Emperor, made by the Spaniards, was their awe of his consuming “the froth of fifty cups of drinking chocolate every night” before he would visit his wives (thereby kickstarting many of the myths of chocolate as an aphrodisiac).

So important was cocoa that the cocoa bean was used as a unit of currency. And indeed this tradition continued in El Salvador up until the mid-19th century, and the Spanish, following Columbus’ lead, would use cocoa beans, instead of metal coins, for small purchases for much of the 17th and 18th centuries.

Etymological Claims from Mexico for Chocolate

Mexico also lays claim, via the Nahuatl language, to have given us the word “chocolate” from their word “chocolatl” (with atl being the Nahuatl word for water). However, this is now challenged by various historians on the grounds that the word “chocolatl” does not appear in Nahuatl until the mid-18th century, and may well have been “borrowed back” from the Spanish who at this point started to write and refer to chocolate in letters and recipes.

Instead, some historians argue that “chocolate” as a word derives from “chicolatl”, with the “chicol” referring to the special wooden stick used to beat and prepare chocolate. Other historians propose that the Mayan word “chocol” (which means hot), combined with “atl” (water) is the basis for our word chocolate.

Any which way, we owe Mexico a massive debt for their contribution to the world of chocolate. And it’s fantastic to have Cuna De Piedra represent the country in our chocolate library.

Posted on Leave a comment

Deadly Diseases

cocoa pod with frosty pod rot disease

Most wine aficionados are aware that in the 19th century European wine was almost destroyed by phylloxera. And anyone partial to bananas is aware that disease destroyed our favourite banana of the 1950s and 1960s (the Gran Michel) and the same may well occur with today’s favourite banana; the Cavendish.

But few people are aware that chocolate too has suffered from diseases as disastrous as phylloxera with gruesome names like ‘swollen shoots’, ‘vascular streak dieback’, ‘witches’ broom’ and ‘frosty pod rot’. And as cacao spread around the world it’s also been afflicted by pests like cocoa tree mirids in Africa (Salhbergella singularis and Distantiella theobroma) or cocoa pod borer (Conopomorpha cramerella) in Southeast Asia. Indeed chocolate may well have been the first crop targeted by bioterrorism back in the 1990s.

And Europe’s insatiable desire for drinking chocolate in the 17th and 18th centuries, combined with disease, led to cocoa cultivation shifting from Mexico, Honduras and Belize to Venezuela, Ecuador and the Caribbean. Disease, and the near extermination of the indigenous Mayans, Aztecs and other peoples, also lead to the abuses and horrors of the Atlantic slave trade and use of slavery in Latin America and the Caribbean for cacao cultivation.

Ironically the (partial) conquest of other diseases, in particular malaria, also explains how cocoa spread to Africa, and again became entwined with slavery.

Today chocolate still struggles with ongoing issues of labour abuses, including slavery. And chocolate confectionery, via excessive sugar, is leading to a host of disastrous 21st diseases for young and old alike. The obesity epidemic, soaring rates of diabetes, heart diseases and many other ‘modern’ diseases can directly be attributed to chocolate confectionery products that are over 50% sugar.

At the same time, it’s not all a story of doom, gloom and disaster. Chocolate can also show some glimmers of hope. Learning to savour craft chocolate provides one means to avoid sugar related diseases. And the diversity of cocoa varietals treasured by craft chocolate provides one of the best defences to cocoa’s next phylloxera.

Read on for more, and see below for some bars that track the way disease has driven chocolate’s journey around the world.

Disease, Slavery, and the Emergence of Drinking Chocolate in Europe

It took Europeans over a century to realise the delights of drinking chocolate from when Cortez and the conquistadors first witnessed Montezuma’s drinking-chocolate-fuelled exploits with his wives as they ransacked Mexico from 1519 (note: Columbus came across chocolate a decade earlier, but thought it was primarily a unit of currency).

By the time appreciation for chocolate had taken hold (i.e. the mid to late 1600s), many of the locations in Mesoamerica (Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, etc.) where cocoa had been drunk and cultivated had seen jaw dropping population declines. Smallpox and a host of other European diseases ravaged Mesoamerica; in some cases wiping out 60% plus of the population in the decades following Columbus (Guatemala shrank from over 2 million people to under 500,000 in 30 years, El Salvador from 500,000 to under 70,000 in the same time period).

As a consequence, the descendants of the conquistadors turned to South America, in particular Ecuador, Brazil and Venezuela, for their cocoa needs. The descendants of the conquistadors needed far more cacao. So they developed a radically different approach, a plantation like system known as the ‘encomienda’, to cultivate cacao in Brazil and Venezuela. And the bedrock to the encomienda system was slavery of not just the few remaining indigenous peoples but also slaves from the Atlantic slave trade.

Ironically, what ended the encomienda system (including its use of slavery) in Venezuela was disease. This time the disease was one that impacted the cacao tree, called at the time ‘alhorra’ and now thought to have been either ‘ceratocystis eilt’ or ‘black pod rot’. Either way the disease was recorded by contemporaries to leave cacao groves “without a single fruit-bearing plant”. And as a consequence, new pastures and lands were sought.

Note: Mexico still produces some amazing chocolates, see Cacao Prieto and Mucho; and amazing cocoa is grown there (see here for some bars from Original Beans, Bonnat, Ritual, Krak and a dozen more makers). And, see below, it has an encouraging diversity of cocoa varieties which provides one means to fight these diseases. As do Brazil and Venezuela, again, see below for more bars from Franchesci, Åkesson’s etc.

Cacao Diseases and the Dissemination of Cocoa to the Caribbean, Asia and Africa

Faced with these cacao blights and diseases in South America and the increasing popularity of drinking chocolate, colonial powers, especially Spain, the UK, and the Netherlands, successfully transplanted cacao trees throughout the Caribbean and Asia, and then Africa.

The Caribbean

Although there are records of cacao being grown in Trinidad as early as the 1525, it wasn’t until the late 1670s that cacao trees, brought over from Venezuela, were cultivated as a commercial crop. As in Venezuela, Trinidad also suffered from various cacao blights and diseases until new cacao varietals were cross bred and cacao farming flourished. In honour of this achievement Trinidad lent its name to a family of these disease resistant beans, ‘Trinitario’. Cacao was also cultivated on other nearby islands, including Tobago, Grenada and Jamaica. And by the 1820s, the Caribbean (and in particular Trinidad and Tobago) was the third largest exporter of cacao; helped ironically by a series of other blights and diseases that damaged cacao cultivation in Brazil, Venezuela and Ecuador, before Trinidad’s cacao was again devastated in the 1920s.

Asia

At the same time as cacao was introduced to Trinidad, the Spanish also introduced chocolate to the Philippines. And soon after the Dutch, in an effort to wrest control over the cacao trade, also introduced cacao to some of their Indonesian colonies (most notably Java and Sulawesi).

Africa

Cacao cultivation in Africa really took off in the second half of the 19th century. Initially cacao was cultivated on the islands of São Tomé and Príncipe, which by the late 1870s were accounting for over 20% of global cacao crops, and over 50% of Cadbury’s cacao needs. Sadly this cultivation was again based off slavery (for more see here).

What drove cacao to these African countries was again partly the appearance of devastating cacao diseases. Brazil, Ecuador, Venezuela, Costa Rica and the other South American cacao growing powerhouses all suffered from a series of blights and diseases, going by dramatic names including frosty pod and witches’ broom.

Disease, or rather the (partial) conquest of one endemic African disease, also made cacao cultivation possible. Until the late 19th century the white colonial powers had been unable to colonise more than the coast of Africa as their armies and administrators had no resistance to malaria (during the 17th and 18th centuries it is estimated that over 60% of Europeans visiting the hinterlands of Africa died within a year). However, the discovery of quinine made the colonisation of Africa possible and so in the late 19th century various ‘white nations’ conquered Ghana (Great Britain), Cameroon (Germany), Cote D’Ivoire (France), etc.

Bioterrorism in 1990s Brazil

In the 1990s cacao farmers in Brazil were facing a calamity so severe that they were hanging themselves and drinking rat poison to kill themselves. Yet a decade earlier Brazil was the world’s third largest grower of cacao, and it made farmers rich (although the plight of the workers was wretched). But in the early 1990s, Moniliophthora perniciosa (aka witches’ broom) was discovered in Bahia, Brazil.

Witches’ broom isn’t native to Bahia, Brazil. Like cacao itself it originated in the Amazonian rainforest. But in the Amazon, it cannot quickly spread as wild cacao trees are well separated from one another. But when witches’ broom reaches dense plantations of cocoa trees, the impact is disastrous; Trinidad and Venezuela lost 80% plus of their cacao trees in outbreaks from the 1920s to the 1940s (Venezuelan cacao then also was hammered by frosty pod and ceratocystis to add to its problems).

From the first instances of witches’ broom in Bahia in the 1990s, suspicions were raised of a deliberate infestation. The first trees to be impacted in many estates were in the middle, not the outskirts, of plantations; and as an eyewitness reported: “I found two cocoa trees with dry witches’ broom tied onto them in the middle of their trunks” (José Roberto Benjamin, a farm owner in Camacan, quoted in The Knot).

And then in 2006 an even more extraordinary claim was published. Luiz Franco Timoteo claimed that he, and other left wing activists,  in an effort to draw attention to the dire conditions of the cacao workers in Bahia, deliberately introduced witches’ broom, with the help of workers from CEPLAC; the Brazilian equivalent of DEFRA (UK) or the FDA (US), as CEPLAC “could go anywhere” (which explains how the disease spread in such an extraordinary way).

CEPLAC vigorously contests these assertions. And it clearly did make extraordinary efforts to destroy the disease; including fumigating cacao farms with Agent Orange. And other conspiracy theories have also been circulated (including the idea that Ghana or the Cote D’Ivoire indulged in agro-warfare).

The origin of witches’ broom in Bahia is still unsolved. But the dangers of bioterrorism, and threats posed by cacao diseases to mass, monoculture agricultural approaches to cacao, is clear.

Why does this matter? Chocolate and Disease: The Present Day

So the good news is that Bahia, Brazil is slowly recovering, and whilst cacao production is nowhere near its earlier levels, it is enabling some farmers and many makers to craft great bars (see here for some from Åkesson’s own operations there).

In part this is because scientists have discovered wild cacao varietals deep in the Amazonian rainforest that can resist witches’ broom (indeed one, called Scavina-6, was identified as early as 1940s in the Peruvian rainforest). And CRISPR is now also being used to try and avoid some frightening new diseases threatening African and Asian cocoa farmers. At the same time these clones have major issues; for more see here on CCN-51.

Without wishing to sound melodramatic, commodity cacao and mass produced chocolate are an existential threat through their reliance on agricultural monocultures, their use of slash and burn agriculture combined with their requirement for loads of fertilizers, pesticides, etc. We need to learn from the disasters foretold by the Gran Michel, and now Cavendish, banana. We need to promote more cacao varietals and delight in chocolate’s myriad of flavours to protect genetic diversity. And we need to protect the rainforest, not destroy it with slash and burn monocrop agricultural commodity cacao and mass produced chocolate where flavour and taste is all added in the factory.

The end product of this commoditised cacao; mass produced chocolate confectionery; is also causing a whole series of other human diseases ranging from early onset type 2 diabetes, heart and liver issues, obesity, cancers, etc. Pretty packaging, smart marketing, evocative slogans (even those claiming to “eradicate child slavery”) should not divert from the fact that most supermarket chocolate bars are over 50% sugar (including Tony’s). As a flavour enhancer sugar is awesome. But it’s also highly addictive and unhealthy.

So if you want to help eradicate the diseases to (and from) cacao and save our planet please savour craft chocolate.

Posted on Leave a comment

Anything But Plain: Vanilla

If ever an adjective was unfairly associated with a spice, it’s the word “plain” becoming synonymous with “vanilla”. In fact, vanilla’s history is anything but plain. What it contributes to many foods is, again, anything but plain (think milk chocolate, ice cream, cakes, and even curries). And the differences between ‘natural’ and ‘artificial’ vanilla flavours are not at all “plain and simple”.

So we think it’s worth doing a deep dive into vanilla (which might take more than one article to achieve!). We will try to answer if it is a good or bad sign when you see the likes of vanilla, vanilla extract, natural vanilla flavouring, artificial vanillin, etc. on the ingredients list of your chocolate bar. Spoiler alert: it’s complicated! 

And if you want to know the links between pre-Aztec princesses, piracy, rare bees, drug smuggling, synthetic biology, coal, plastics, and orchids, look no further than vanilla! Or just skip below for some amazing craft chocolate bars spiced with vanilla.

The Origins of Vanilla

Vanilla is the fruit of the orchid Vanilla planifolia, which grows on vines hundreds of feet tall and has relied for most of its history on special bees (or occasionally hummingbirds) to cross-pollinate its vanilla pods. And it’s arguably unique among the 25,000 other varieties of orchid in not just being beautiful to look at (see picture above) but agriculturally useful as an ingredient and flavouring agent.

Its first recorded use was with the Aztecs, who in the 15th century conquered the neighbouring kingdom of Totonicapan and demanded tribute in the form of vanilla pods. The Aztecs combined this vanilla with cocoa to make a drink they called ‘chocolatl’ or ‘chicolatl’ (there are lots of scholarly debates on the origin of this term).

It may well be true that vanilla was appreciated before the Aztecs used it for their drinking chocolate, as an incense or perfume, perhaps. However, unlike cocoa (which leaves traces of theobromine), there are no chemical fingerprints that enable us to work out how vanilla may have been used before then.

Nonetheless, there are some wonderful legends for the origin of vanilla, especially among the Totonac (Jaguar) people of Mexico. They have a ‘Romeo and Juliet’ story of a prince and princess falling in love against the wishes of their family and high priests, being sacrificed as punishment, and then being turned into the vanilla vine by the gods.

The Post-Columbus History of Vanilla

Vanilla really took off when it was introduced to Europe. Initially, it was consumed “Spanish style” (or rather “Aztec style”) in drinking chocolate and proved hugely popular.

Vanilla’s popularity was then turbocharged by Hugh Morgan, one of Queen Elizabeth I’s apothecaries (think pharmacist with a few other side interests). Morgan started to experiment with vanilla, mixing it with a variety of other consumables such as tobacco, pastries, perfumes, and (of course) alcohol. On the other side of the pond, Thomas Jefferson added it to ice cream in the US (one of his recipes is stored in the Library of Congress). 

With the development of these uses of vanilla, demand boomed. Supply struggled to keep up. Even though the vanilla orchid could be grown outside Latin America, it pollinated in only a few places outside of Mexico (so no vanilla pods emerged). 

Eventually in 1838, horticulturalist Charles Morren identified the problem: you need either special bees (Melipona or Euglossine) or hummingbirds to cross-pollinate (and therefore grow) vanilla pods.

It then took another five years, and the smarts of a 12-year-old enslaved boy called Edmond Albius living on Réunion (a tiny island in the middle of the Indian Ocean), to work out a means of ‘hand pollinating’ vanilla pods. Even though this process is painstakingly slow and difficult, it rapidly became (and remains) the predominant way to grow vanilla. And since then, Réunion and Madagascar have become leading exporters of grown vanilla.

Vanilla in Chocolate

As explored above, the use of cocoa and vanilla in collaboration first appears to have emerged in ancient Aztec hot-chocolate-like concoctions. In a more modern context, vanilla found its way into chocolate as a strategy to counteract the bitterness of the often low-quality beans which were being used in the production of early 20th-century chocolate. 

This use of vanilla as a means of masking poor-quality chocolate is not exclusively a thing of the past. Many mass producers of chocolate continue to use vanilla, along with a generous spoonful of sugar, as a means of disguising their low-quality chocolate. 

Consequently, in the case of bean-to-bar craft chocolate, the use of vanilla can be frowned upon. After all, good quality chocolate should be appreciated alone, unadulterated, and in authentic form. 

However, in some cases, the best quality chocolate can benefit from the addition of vanilla. Essentially, adding vanilla enhances creaminess, balances sweetness and counteracts bitterness and acidity. Although not strictly necessary with craft chocolate; in cases where craft chocolate is accompanied by a range of flavours, known as inclusions, vanilla can be a welcome addition. Such is the case for Forever Cacao’s Lacuma and Vanilla bar.

And for something really interesting, you can read about how vanilla might also have curious psychological effects on us too.

In the interim, why not explore some great milk and white chocolate bars (including one with matcha) crafted with real vanilla…

Posted on Leave a comment

Is this a pepper or a chilli?

(the answer is neither: it’s a pink pepper)

To any of you who have ever wondered:

  • How did we come to MIX peppers, chilli peppers and peppermint with chocolate (and why these combinations can be such fun)?
  • Why are the names of peppers, chilli peppers and peppermint so easy to MIX UP in almost every language (except Nahuatl)?

… well we have some answers, and we’ve highlighted some great bars (including a bundle to try them all out at once!).

Read on for a quick history of peppers, chillies and peppermint. You’ll also find out how and why they work so well with chocolate (and why they aren’t a taste or flavour, and why birds LOVE chillies…).  Or just skip below for some great bars from Bertil Åkesson, Georgia Ramon and Rózsavölgyi Csokoládé (and our special themed bundle).

A History of Chilli and Chocolate

As many of us learnt at school, the discovery of America was an accident. 

Christopher Columbus was not looking for a new continent. Rather he was looking for a simple route to sail to, and trade with, India.  Hence the nomenclature of ‘West Indies’, ‘American Indians’ etc., as Columbus et al. thought they were in India, meeting Indians, etc.

The term “chilli pepper” is the result of a similar accident (and possibly deliberate confusion).

Columbus was searching for a new route to India as he wanted to disrupt the Venetian monopoly of the spice trade, and in particular their control over ‘black gold’; or black pepper.  But he didn’t find black pepper on any of his voyages.  However, he did come across what the Aztecs called in their language (Nahuatl) chīlli (or xilli or even Chilpoctli, Chiltecpin or Chiltepin), which he initially mistook for cinnamon, another coveted spice.  

Realising that both black pepper and chilli ‘spice up’ food and drink, and given that Columbus was desperate to showcase the commercial potential of the lands he’d reached, he decided to call these spices “chilli peppers”. The result has been ENDLESS confusion. (If you want more on the etymology of chocolate; it’s more complicated; see here.)

The Aztecs clearly adored chilli, mixing it with all their foods and drinks (including drinking chocolate). Indeed, so much did they enjoy chilli that their definition of fasting didn’t mean not to eat or drink, but rather that they’d not add chilli to their food and drinking chocolate!

Chilli’s Origins

Quite where the chilli plant originated (or indeed which of the five different genera of chilli plant came first) isn’t clear. However, robust claims are made by Bolivia, Ecuador, and Mexico. And archaeologists have found evidence of chilli farming as far back as 8,000 BC, in what is modern-day Mexico. Chilli cultivation has also been uncovered in Ecuador as far back as 6,000 BC (so unlike chocolate, where Ecuador appears to be ‘ground zero’ for chocolate cultivation, Mexico is winning the claim for the first country to cultivate chillies).

The reason chilli was able to spread far and wide (and why it’s so hard to pin down its origins) is thanks to its attractiveness to birds. Unlike other animals, birds don’t feel the capsaicin in chilli that gives it its ‘kick’ and ‘spiciness’. This lack, combined with chillies’ bright colours, leads to extensive snacking by birds who, having digested the chilli seeds, then spread these, flying far and wide and defecating as they go. By contrast, chocolate had to rely on humans for much of its dissemination, and hence its slower spread.

Whether the Aztecs were the first to combine chilli and chocolate isn’t clear (it may well be that the Olmecs did this too, and possibly even earlier). But the combination is clearly popular. Indeed it’s worth noting that when the chocolate drinks ‘marketed’ by the Jesuits (and endorsed later by the Papacy) took off in late-1600s Europe, the recipes used were very similar to those used by the Aztecs; that is to say, the chocolate was spiced up with chilli and/or vanilla and sugar (sugar was substituted for different indigenous sweeteners like honey). And many of today’s most popular bars follow still these recipes.

The History of Black Pepper

Black pepper (technically Piper nigrum), flowers on vines (similar to grapes) and is believed to have originated on the Malabar coast of India. Its history as a spice enjoyed by humans goes back to at least 2,000 BC and it was clearly traded in antiquity (peppercorns were found stuffed and preserved in the nostrils of the mummy of Ramesses the Great, Pharaoh of Egypt from 1303-1213 BC).

The Romans were fond of pepper, and there are extensive suggestions, recipes, and menus that attest to its use. Its popularity spread even to Rome’s enemies: Alaric, King of the Visigoths, was (initially) persuaded not to sack Rome for a payment that included 3000 pounds of pepper. And despite the various sackings of Rome by his successors, including the Ostrogoths, Vandals and then the Normans, black pepper’s popularity and usage continued in medieval Europe.

Quite when, who, or how chocolate makers and cooks figured out that black pepper combines well with chocolate we’ve not (yet) had much luck in tracking down (please do send in any old recipes or ideas!).

But, clearly, black pepper works really well with chocolate. See below for a great example: Bertil Åkesson’s wild Voatsiperifery black pepper dark chocolate bar from Madagascar.

There are now estimated to be over 2000 different forms of black pepper, including white, green, and red variants depending on how and when the black pepper is picked and processed. However, PINK PEPPER, (including the Åkesson one below) is a completely different berry, from the Schinus molle shrub, commonly called the Peruvian Peppertree (but until Bertil, we’re not aware of anyone else combining it with chocolate).

…And Peppermint?

Peppermint can be dated back, again, to the Romans (Pliny wrote a history of it), and possibly even further back to the Egyptians (Mentha piperita and dried leaves have been discovered in several pyramids). But we’re not really sure that what Pliny et al. referred to as ‘peppermint’ is the same herb that we now enjoy, with claims being made that what we now call peppermint is a hybrid of water mint and spearmint (Mentha aquatica and Mentha spicata) crossed in 17th-century England.

The benefits attributed to peppermint are extensive; for example, it’s been widely used in Eastern and Western traditional medicine as an aromatic, antispasmodic and antiseptic to deal with indigestion, nausea, sore throat, colds, toothaches, cramps, cancers, gout and much more! And its palatability enabled it to make the jump into confectionery (it is now the number one flavour for non-chocolate, hard candies in the US) and indeed into chocolate (although this is relatively recent; ‘After 8s’ were invented only in 1962, versus 1932 for the ‘Chocolate Orange’).

Intriguingly there is some evidence that the Aztecs, and their predecessors in Mesoamerica, used another pepper, mecaxóchitl (aka Mexican pepperleaf) in their drinking chocolate. And this mecaxóchit spice is known for its eucalyptus and minty notes; so perhaps the Aztecs also invented ‘peppermint’ chocolate?

So what’s so special about chilli pepper, black pepper, and peppermint?

Chilli, pepper, and peppermint are neither tastes nor flavours. They work by a process called “chemesthesis”; that is to say they stimulate chemical reactions on our skin and mucous membranes. In particular, there are a series of nerves running from your eye down to your mouth called the trigeminal nerve, which reacts to the likes of capsaicin, piperine and menthol. And these spices and herbs stimulate nervous reactions similar to that when you touch something hot (TRPV1 for chilli with capsaicin and peppers with piperine) or when you touch something cool (TRPM8 for mint and menthol).

We know that (most) other animals detect and dislike spiciness, hence why cats, dogs, etc. won’t (normally) eat chillies. And we also know birds lack these trigeminal reactions and hence why they have no problem consuming and spreading chillies as they migrate. 

What’s more puzzling is why we humans often have such a desire to try super spicy foods. There are lots of theories about why humans enjoy “risk-taking”, and if you’d like to put them to the test, we HEARTILY recommend you brave Georgia Ramon’s “Carolina Reaper” which really is a super spicy bar. Alternatively, try one of Bertil’s Pepper bars, or Rózsavölgyi Csokoládé with peppermint.  Or try all with this bundle (and save 15% on the normal retail price).

Posted on Leave a comment

Craft Chocolate Truffles

mixed truffles in a bowl

For something so famous and ubiquitous, the story of chocolate truffles is infuriatingly vague. Their inventor, history, naming and even definition are obscure and complex.

They are nonetheless amazing when properly crafted. And we are delighted to present some craft chocolate truffles from David Crichton of The Careless Collection, and Mike Longman of Chocolarder, which hopefully highlight the possibilities.

If you want to know more about the history and etymology of ‘chocolate truffles’, read on for more information to impress and bamboozle everyone you treat to these delights (spoiler alert: These truffles don’t contain any mushroom or fungi or Piedmont truffle, they aren’t Belgian, they aren’t to be confused with Pralines; but they do have a connection to the French for “chump” or “idiot”).

History

There are a lot of claims as to who invented the first chocolate truffles, with three French chefs vying to claim the credit for their invention:

  • The earliest claim is by a Paris playwright turned confectioner called Paul Sirauadin, who created a bon bon called a “crème ganache” in 1869, which he named after a popular comedy called Les Ganaches (The Idiots), written by a friend.
  • Next up is French pâtissier Louis Dufour who, running out of ideas (and stock) for treats on Christmas Day 1895 in Chambray, France, made up a batch of ‘ganache’ (i.e. chocolate mixed with cream), shaped this into round balls and then dipped these into melted chocolate. As a side note, one of his relatives (Antoine Dufour), took this idea with him when he came to the UK in 1902 and used it to found Prestat Chocolates.
  • The third, and most often cited, truffle inventor is the famous French Chef, Auguste Escoffier in the 1920s. According to legend, one of Escoffier’s apprentices mistakenly poured some hot cream into a bowl with some chocolate instead of a nearby bowl of beaten eggs and sugar. Escoffier yelled “ganache” (idiot), but then turned this mistake (or bad pun) into truffles by hand rolling the ‘ganache’ into balls and dusting them with cocoa powder (i.e. basically doing what is also claimed of Siraudin and Dufour).

Whichever story is correct, the bottom line is that these ganache truffles are amazing. When crafted properly, the combination of melted cream and chocolate encased in a hard chocolate casing is hard to beat.

What’s in a name?

Similar to the claims to who came up with the original truffle recipe, the person who first named them “truffles” is similarly disputed. But it’s generally accepted that because these hand rolled chocolate delicacies are such a luxury, and on the surface physically look very similar to the legendary fungi truffles of Perigord and Piedmont, that this is the origin of their name.

(Note: the history of fungi based truffles is far, far longer: Their consumption has been traced back to the Sumerians and Babylonians in ~4000 BC).

Divided by a Common Language

Over the last hundred years, chocolate makers in different countries have further confused the world of chocolate truffles by developing their own recipes and definitions, with massive variations. For example:

  • The classic French truffle should only be made with fresh cream and chocolate, and then rolled in cocoa powder (and, sometimes, nut powder). They should also be made by hand. And can only be made with milk or dark chocolate.
  • The Swiss truffle has similar ingredients to the French but is made somewhat differently; melted chocolate is mixed into a boiling mixture of dairy cream and butter, which is then poured into moulds to set before sprinkling with cocoa powder (and given these moulds, they can easily be confused with a Belgian Praline; see below).
  • The Spanish prepare their truffles with dark chocolate, condensed milk, rum (or any preferred liqueur), and chocolate sprinkles.
  • The classic American truffle is more recent, and comprises a half-oval-shaped, chocolate-coated truffle made from a mixture of dark or milk chocolates with butterfat and, in some cases, hardened coconut oil. These American truffles also have a flat bottom (as opposed to being round like mushroom truffles).
  • California (of course) has its own truffle variant that is essentially a super sized, and lumpier, version of the French truffle (developed by Alice Medrich in 1973 in Berkeley California).
  • Further north, the Canadians also have a truffle called the “Harvey Truffle” which shares the same flat bottom as the American truffle but includes fillings such as peanut butter and graham crackers.
  • And then we have what the Belgians call a truffle or praline (see below), which is basically a chocolate shell filled with all sorts of creations, but often involving nuts.

Pralines versus Truffles: Putting the Matter Straight

The Belgians, as well as claiming to invent couverture in the 1920s, also claim that a Belgian, Jean Neuhas, in 1912 invented a form of truffle which they somewhat confusingly also call “pralines”.

Belgium’s claim to have invented the praline is a bit of a stretch (and their claim over truffles even more tenuous). But to give credit where credit is due, the Belgian claim for Oskar Callebault to have invented couverture appears on firmer ground. However, boasting about the invention of mass produced couverture in the world of fine chocolate is a bit like claiming to have invented ready cooked meals in the world of fine cuisine (come to a virtual tasting to find out more).

As with truffles, the French have a strong claim to inventing, and at least first using, the term ‘praline’. In 1636 Clement Lassagne, chef to the French Duke of Praslin, named a confection comprising almonds and sugar after the Duke, a famous French general. Initially he called it a Praslin, but upon retiring from working for the Duke, Clement Lassagne founded La Maison de la Praline (which still exists in the French town of Montargis, and still sells Pralines).

These Pralines also spread internationally, enjoying status of a classic dish in New Orleans and Louisiana in the 18th and 19th centuries, where it became a source of great pride, and income, for many Creole families.

Confusion then occurred in 1912 when Jean Neuhas in Belgium started to use the word “praline” to describe what he also called a “truffle” for his chocolate invention of a hard outer shell which contained various fillings. And as with couverture in general, many companies specialise in making these praline casings for other chocolate makers to add various creams, concoctions, etc. but don’t actually make the chocolate themselves.

What to Look for in a Truffle

So, first and foremost, neither the American nor the Belgian pralines are really truffles (and the chocolate they use probably wasn’t made in America or Belgium).

Secondly, as with craft chocolate bars:

  • Check the ingredients (to paraphrase Michael Pollan: Make sure your grandmother would recognise them all).
  • Make sure you know the source of the chocolate beans used in the ganache and casing.
  • Identify where, and how, your chocolate is made.

To date, very few truffles are made with craft chocolate. But this is changing!

Chocolarder crafts all their chocolate, and inclusions, down in Cornwall, including their incredibly moreish salted caramels. Mike Longman, founder of Chocolarder, directly sources the beans for this chocolate used for the casing from the Ashaninka people in the Peruvian Andes. And Michael then combines some of this chocolate with Cornish sea salt and fresh Cornish cream to make a ganache that they turn, by hand, into truffles. See the truffles here.

David Crichton (of Master Chef fame), works with Pump Street Chocolate to create firstly his bars, and now his truffles (including the bread and butter one, that was so good that Simon and Tim wouldn’t share it with their guests when we took it Sunday Brunch on Channel 4; but you can now try them here).

And even though we aren’t (yet) selling them, do also try the fantastic Scottish truffles crafted by Charlotte Flower using sweet cicely (which really is related to the carrot family): See here.

Posted on Leave a comment

Which came first; the chocolate or the egg?

So, unlike the conundrum of which came first in “the chicken or the egg”, with chocolate Easter eggs, the answer seems clear; it was the egg.

Humans have been decorating eggs for millennia (apparently over sixty of them, with evidence of ostrich egg carvings found over 60,000 years ago in South Africa). 

By comparison, we can track the drinking of chocolate back to around 3,500BC. And wide scale gifting of chocolate eggs at Easter only really started in the 19th century and then took off in the later 20th century thanks to some smart packaging innovations.

Today, Easter is second only to Christmas as a time for gifting chocolate (and please can we encourage you to check out our range of Easter eggs, bunnies, chicks and more). And at the same time factors that made chocolate Easter eggs ‘hatch’ offer a great history of chocolate, lent, fasting and packaging innovations.

The History of Lent and Eggs

Eggs featured in many religions’ celebrations of Spring; some of which still continue. For example, the Zoroastrians have been painting and gifting eggs at their spring holiday of Nowruz for over 7,000 years. And the ancient Egyptian spring festival of Sham el Nessi, which is still held today as a non-religious holiday, involved hard boiled coloured eggs being eaten at picnics. Eggs also play a key role in the Chinese creation myth of Pangu, and this theme of eggs involved in the world’s creation stretches from Finland (see the Kalevala; the Finnish national epic) to Fiji, Hawaii and indeed pretty much everywhere.

The early church took a different tack; celebrating eggs but also abstaining from them in the run up to Easter. One upshot of this is Shrove Tuesday (aka pancake day) where as many eggs as possible can be turned into pancakes before the 40 days of Lent (and please see Dormouse’s wonderful pancake bar). France has a slightly different tradition; Mardi Gras, which occurs on the same day as Shrove Tuesday, i.e. the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. Mardi Gras translates literally as “Fat Tuesday”; and is so named as an encouragement to eat as many as eggs, cheese, dairy, etc. as you can before Lent starts. Easter egg rolling, egg races, etc. may well be another result (after all chickens don’t stop laying eggs during Lent, so something has to be done with them).

And these traditions were then combined with other customs around the Easter hare, which then became the Easter bunny (we’ve written about this before) to end up with breaking the fast with chocolate Easter eggs.

The History of Chocolate and Fasting

Fasting, and not just at Easter, also played a key role in the spread of chocolate over Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries. During the 16th and 17th centuries, Catholics didn’t just fast at Lent, they also fasted on many Saints’ Days and also on Fridays and Wednesdays (hence ‘fish on Fridays’). And this meant that they had to abstain from all animal products (milk, cheese, meat, etc.), and only have a meal 1-2 times a day (note: Henry VIII in the UK as part of the English Reformation pared back the demands of fasting to allow consumption of chicken, and this was seen as a major concession; but eggs remained off the Lenten menu).

The Jesuits saw this as a great opportunity to promote nutritious, and very filling, drinking chocolate that they were importing from the “New World”. They positioned their drinking chocolate as a delicious means to stave off pangs of hunger on any fast day. This campaign met with significant push back from other religious orders, especially the Dominicans, who argued that anything that tasted as good as chocolate, and was so filling, was missing the point of abstaining and fasting. However the Jesuits persevered, and eventually succeeded in persuading various Popes, starting with Gregory XIII and culminating in Alexander VII, to back their argument that “Liquidum non frangit jejunum (i.e. liquids do not break the fast)”. And the rest is history: Europe started to drink chocolate.

Chocolate Eggs

There are various claims floating around for the first chocolate Easter egg, ranging from the court of Louis XIV to an Italian, known as “the widow Giambone”, who had the idea of filling empty eggshells with melted chocolate and selling them in her shop in 1725.

However, the effort involved in hand crafting these eggs, pouring them into hollowed out egg shells, etc. was too great for these initiatives to be anything more than a court occasional treat.

It took another century for makers, starting with Joseph Fry, to work out how to make chocolate Easter eggs ‘at scale’. Fry’s back in 1847 had already worked out how to make the world’s first commercial chocolate bars by “folding back” the cocoa butter produced by the Van Houten’s cocoa press into their cocoa grinders and making stable, solid bars. And they used this insight to mould chocolate Easter eggs, launching them in 1873 (Cadbury followed a couple of years later).

These eggs were filled with all sorts of other confectionery and they sold well. However they suffered from the perennial problem of eggs as a whole. They are fragile. They broke all too easily.

Packaging

Chicken (and other non chocolate) eggs until the twentieth century were wrapped in straw and transported by basket, boxes, etc. But they often broke in transit. However in 1911, a Canadian newspaper editor Joseph Coyle, seeking to end a bust up over eggs breaking in transport, invented the first egg carton (note: Liverpudlians sometimes argue that a citizen of theirs; Thomas Peter Bethell; had invented something similar in 1906, but this design was more a series of dividers so Coyle is generally credited as the father of the modern egg box).

Chocolate Easter egg packaging had to wait another few decades for its ‘eureka moment’. In the early 1950s, William T. Horry, a packaging designer, realised that he could adapt a carton he was using to transport electric light bulbs to package Easter eggs. Cadbury seized upon this idea, using it first on their Roses Easter Eggs as it offered greater protection and also windows that could show the egg inside the box.

Over the last few years, craft chocolate makers have come up with even smarter packaging ideas. For example, please check out Chocolarder’s ingenious, and super environmentally friendly, packaging HERE and in the picture above. Or see Pump Street’s ‘nests’ HERE.

Plus don’t forget Bare Bones’ latest limited edition egg, plus Zotter’s Easter bunnies also make great gifts.

If you want to read more about any of these topics, we’d highly recommend the follow articles:

https://companieshouse.blog.gov.uk/2017/04/13/what-uk-company-made-the-first-chocolate-egg/

https://aratta.wordpress.com/2015/06/02/the-world-egg/

https://www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/2000/spring/white-house-egg-roll-1.html

https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/anthropology-in-practice/beyond-ishtar-the-tradition-of-eggs-at-easter/

https://antiquitynow.org/2013/03/28/cracking-the-history-of-easter-eggs/

https://doinghistoryinpublic.org/2016/03/29/from-liquid-flesh-to-chocolate-a-brief-history-of-easter-eggs/

https://www.historytoday.com/archive/history-matters/theology-chocolate

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6362887/

Posted on Leave a comment

Celebrating Mothering Sunday

At time of writing, next Sunday is Mothers’ Day here in the UK (in the US it’s a couple of months later). So we’ve assembled a bunch of great chocolate gifts to delight any mother… and tried to trace the history and practises of ‘Mothering Sunday’. See HERE for the full selection, and below for some highlights.

Mothers’ Day in Ancient Times

Celebrating mothers is a well established (and well deserved!) tradition; it dates at least as far back as the ancient Greeks who celebrated Rhea, the mother of all their gods and goddesses, every spring. As ever, the Romans took these traditions and applied their own interpretation with festivals to Cybele (their mother Goddess) in March. 

And then the Christian church again ‘adopted’ these festivals, switching Cybele for the virgin Mary and encouraging people to return to their “mother church” (i.e. the church where they were baptized, or nearest cathedral) as opposed to any “daughter church” that they might be regularly visiting because they’d married and moved away, etc. The date for ‘Mothering Sunday’ was set to be the fourth Sunday before Easter (so it moves around a lot). And to help its celebration, the Lenten fast was relaxed on this mid-lent Sunday (hence why Mothering Sunday was once also known as ‘Refreshment Sunday’). And by the middle ages, Mothering Sunday had become well established as a Sunday where families could assemble, and indulge in a “proper Sunday lunch” that spoiled mum even though they were mid way through Lent.

Mothering Sunday: UK and US Versions

However, during the 18th and 19th centuries, celebrations of Mothering Sunday declined here in the UK (perhaps because industrialisation and  factory work made returning to the mother churches harder, perhaps Lenten fasts were less practised). And it was only following the establishment of Mother’s Day in the US, that efforts were made to resuscitate it here in the UK. Note: in the US Mothers’ Day is celebrated on the second Sunday in May, and is attributed to Anna Jarvis from Grafton, West Virginia who wanted to honour her late mother, and pushed for holiday to celebrate all mothers. And while Jarvis was delighted by President Woodrow Wilson making it an official holiday in 1914, she was horrified by it’s later commercialisation (indeed she coined the phrase “Hallmark holiday” as term to show her displeasure).

In the UK Constance Penswick Smith created the ‘Mothering Sunday Movement’ in response to Anna Jarvis’ US movement. And to support her cause Constance wrote plays, histories and a eulogy to all aspects of motherhood that should be celebrated: “The Church: Our Mother”, “The Mother of Jesus”, “Gifts of Mother Earth” and “Mothers of Earthly Homes”. She was amazingly successful. And by the post war period, Mothering Sunday was back in full swing.

The tradition of family gatherings is back in full swing. And for those of us who can’t make it in person, there is always the phone (or Zoom); back in the 1990s in the US, Mother’s day witnessed more phone calls than any other day of the year, with phone traffic spiking by over 35%.

Whether you can make it in person, or call/Zoom, if you’d like to treat your mother to a great present, may we suggest some of the below gifts; we’ve everything from gift boxes to truffles, wine and chocolate pairings, to even a tasting session.  Please see below for more details.

Posted on Leave a comment

Why the Easter Bunny gives out Chocolate Eggs

Why do we gift and eat chocolate eggs at Easter? What do Easter eggs have to do with bunnies? It’s worth exploring the tangled warren of different traditions that have us now celebrating Easter with chocolate bunnies and eggs.

Easter Bunnies (and Hares)

Following the tale of ‘The Easter Bunny’ involves going down a rabbit warren of different traditions that came together in late 17th century Germany with the first “Easter Hare” before this was combined with chocolate eggs in the late 19th Century.

  • The link between rabbits, spring, fertility and the ‘rebirth’ of Easter is relatively obvious given the way that rabbits are well known for breeding like, well, rabbits. And these ‘kittens’ are often born around Easter time (note: technically, and very confusingly, when baby rabbits are first born they are called kittens, not bunnies).
  • The link between hares and Easter is less obvious. Hares have long been associated with the Virgin Mary as in Roman times it was (mistakenly) believed that hares were hermaphrodites and so could reproduce without sex. So in medieval church paintings and manuscripts hares were often used to symbolize the idea of the Virgin birth.
  • The first record we have of an Easter Bunny (or to be exact, an Easter Hare) giving out eggs, dates back to 1682 where Georg Franck Von Frackenau describes a German Lutheran folk take of an Easter Hare bringing eggs for well behaved children. German immigrants to the US in the 1700s brought this tradition with them, and there are mentions in Pennsylvania diaries from the 1700s of an egg-laying hare (called the ‘Osterhase’) and children making nests for this hare to lay their anticipated Easter eggs.

And the link to eggs?

The next puzzle is why the Easter Bunny/Hare laid, and gave out, eggs. And here the history is also convoluted and requires a lot of disentangling:

  • Along with rabbits, eggs have been used as fertility symbols since antiquity, and as early as the 1st century AD eggs were associated by the Christian Church with rebirth.
  • In medieval times, eggs became one of the many foods that were prohibited during lent, in the run up to Easter. So before the start of Lent, parents would hand out eggs as special treats to children, and, rather like the origins of Boxing Day, children would go door to door asking for eggs before they started their Lenten fasts.
  • These traditions were then combined with the ancient custom of decorating eggs (the earliest decorated eggs date back more than 60,000 years to Howieson Poort Shelter, a cave in South Africa). Over the centuries, different ways were found to colour eggs and use them as gifts; for example, court records detail how Edward I of England dyed over 450 eggs with onion skins to give to his court for Easter in 1290.
  • During the 18th century, chocolate was added to the mix. Louis XIV used to give decorated ostrich eggs to his court favourites, and one of his chocolate cooks had the bright idea of replacing these ostrich eggs with chocolate moulded to look like ostrich eggs. And this was followed in Turin where a Mme. Giambone started filling empty chicken egg shells with molten chocolate in 1725.
  • It took the UK some time to catch up. The Victorians started to give out chocolate for Easter, but it wasn’t until 1873 that J.S. Fry & Sons claim to have launched the first British Chocolate Easter egg in 1873, closely followed by Cadbury in 1875.

Today these different themes of eggs, chocolate, bunnies and hares have been conflated and combined to create an extravaganza of chocolate Easter bunnies, Easter eggs… and much else. It’s hard to obtain exact numbers but estimates of the UK gifting over 80 million eggs are often quoted; and that doesn’t include Creme Eggs (Cadbury sells annually over 500 million of these, two thirds in the UK).

Tastings and Easter Gifts

Please see below, and in our Easter store, for a selection of great Easter treats (subject to seasonality) including:

Posted on Leave a comment

A plea for more chocolate… and more books on chocolate

There are lots and lots and lots of great novels featuring chocolate. And every holiday season sees the publication of more ‘coffee table books’ on recipes and cooking, and even a few on bean-to-bar chocolate. We’ve started to assemble a list of these. And we’d love your help in updating this (and describing their strengths).

But unlike coffee, beer, wine, and many other foods, there are some curious gaps when it comes to books about chocolate. The chocolate world in recent years hasn’t had an equivalent of the likes of Merlin Sheldrake (for fungi), Rachel McCormack (for whisky), Frances and Bronwen Percival (for cheese), Fuchsia Dunlop (for Chinese food), Mark Kurlansky (for cod, salt, etc.), Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson (for wine) or James Hoffmann and Maxwell Colonna-Dashwood (for coffee).

Back in the 1990s and early 2000s a raft of great histories and investigative histories of chocolate were published. But since then, it’s been a bit quiet.

Below are a bunch of great books that do cover chocolate, but it’s still puzzling as to why in recent years there haven’t been more history books, examinations of flavour, exposés of chocolate’s darker side, etc. So below are some attempts to explore these gaps.

Secrecy

The chocolate industry is notoriously closed and secretive. For example, Joël Glenn Brenner, who claims to be the first historian to secure direct access to both Hershey and Mars, notes early on in his ‘The Emperors of Chocolate’ how he was “requested” not to write where the Mars family “parked their cars or describe even what sort of cars they drove” (heaven forbid there should have been a photo!). And since this book, authors have struggled to obtain access to many of the major chocolate companies (spoiler alert; it’s an interesting book; but don’t expect any great secrets about cars or families).  

And the chocolate industry also has an abundance of other darker secrets that people and companies still want to keep under wraps. For example, any mention of Cadbury’s role in the awful history of São Tomé and Príncipe’s use of slave labour to harvest cocoa is, unsurprisingly, glided over in any of their ‘official’ biographies. Catherine Higgs’ biography of Henry Nevinson, the journalist who revealed this scandal, (Chocolate Islands (2008)) has helped correct these imbalances. And Orla Ryan’s ‘Living and Dying for Cocoa in West Africa’ (2012) did a great service investigating the modern day issues of child slave labour in West Africa as congressmen Harkin and Engel raised these issues in the US Congress.

But even though the challenges of living income, child labour, deforestation, desertification, etc. have worsened (and not just in West Africa, but also South America) this, sadly, hasn’t resulted in any more exposés.

The best recent book covering these challenges (and a whole lot more) is Kristy’s Leissle’s ‘Cocoa’. If you want one balanced and insightful book on cocoa’s challenges, read this.

Complex, Multi-Continent and Multi-Century History

Back in the 1990s, Sophie Coe (and her husband) published ‘The True History of Chocolate’ dating back from Mesoamerica to the ‘current day’ (i.e. 1990s). At around the same time, William Gervase Clarence Smith published ‘Cocoa and Chocolate’, focused on the period 1764-1914, with TONNES of great statistics.

These two books remain the ‘go to’ historical works on chocolate (in English at least). And both have been updated. But unlike many other foods and drinks, these two works haven’t been followed by any other historical studies that combine the same easy to read with great scholarship.

Part of this may well be that there isn’t a tonne of documentary evidence about chocolate for it’s first five thousand years (i.e. from 3,500B.C. through to the Spanish conquest and destruction of the Aztec Empire; we’ve a few glyphs and a few drawings, but no written records). 

Another factor may well be the sheer complexity of chocolate’s history over the last 500 years. So whereas the history of tea’s move from China to India can be credited to one figure (Robert Fortune) with a critical bit of kit (the Wardian case), the spread of chocolate from South America to Africa and Asia is far more complex (side note: if you want a great read on tea do try ‘For all the Tea in China’ by Sarah Rose, and for a parallel in coffee, try Dave Eggers’ ‘The Monk of Mokha’). Even the way chocolate changed from being a ‘daily drink’ to ‘everyday bar’ in the 19th century is the result of a whole host of inventors and developments, including (but not limited to):

  • The cocoa press (Van Houten),
  • Stoneground bars for eating (Fry),
  • Smooth bars via conching (Lindt),
  • Milk chocolate bars (Peter and Nestle),
  • Smooth bars that even melt via tempering (Tobler).

If you’ve been to one of our craft chocolate tastings you’ll know that it’s not easy to summarise these many twists and turns. But it’s still surprising that no-one has tried to tell any of these stories.

The good news is that there are a bunch of well respected academics in the field, e.g, Carla Martin and Kathryn Sampeck. And hopefully they’ll be publishing more soon.

Commoditisation and Ingredients

Most fans of wine prefer to drink it rather than cook with it. Cheese is similar. And coffee aficionados disdain milk in specialty coffee. There is a tonne of research into what creates flavour, balance, complexity in wine, cheese, beer, etc.  And much of this research into flavour has been translated, and made accessible, for wine, by the likes of Jancis Robinson, James Halliday, Hugh Johnson etc. and for coffee by James Hoffmann, etc.

In comparison, most of the chocolate we consume is an ingredient for cakes, ice cream, biscuits, etc. And sadly chocolate as an ingredient is most often used as a vector for other flavours, rather than its own flavours. Consequently much of the consumer oriented ‘scientific’ literature on chocolate is more around cooking and recipes, not around the whys and hows of chocolate’s flavours.

And because chocolate for big chocolate companies is a ‘commodity ingredient’, much of their scientific research is focused on the likes of crop yield and disease resistance. The big chocolate companies have LOTS of research on cocoa beans. But they treat these as trade secrets. And they are more concerned with higher yielding clones (CCN51, CC81, etc.) than preserving, and showcasing heirloom cocoa varietals with their wonderful flavours (hat tip to the Heirloom Cacao Project here… but we’ve ways to go: Wine has identified over three thousand grape varieties while the HCP has so far registered less than 20 heirloom cacao varieties).

Bottom line: There hasn’t (yet) been much research into what drives flavour in cocoa, so there is no opportunity to translate this into books that really explain the intricacies of chocolate’s flavour. And be sceptical of coffee table picture books promising otherwise.

If you want to understand more about the flavour, aromas and complexity of the cocoa bean, the best books that have been recently published sadly aren’t specifically about chocolate. If you want an understanding of chocolate’s flavour a great place to start is Harold McGee’s ‘Nose Dive’, even though this has only a couple of dozen pages within its 1000 or so others. Or go back to first principles with Anne Sophie Barwick’s ‘Smellosophy’. Or even try Brillat Savarin. And then practise tasting. And come to one of Professor Barry Smith’s tastings.

Note: Chocolate has had a few books that can be compared to the ‘encyclopaedias’ annually updated for wine by the likes of James Halliday, Robert Parker, Hugh Johnson, Jancis Robinson, etc. We had the wonderful Georg Bernadini with his reviews and tasting notes on over 1000 chocolates. But this MASSIVE tome is now sadly out of print, and a little out of date (you can join the waitlist for this book HERE). Similarly, Sarah Jane Evans back in 2010 wrote ‘Chocolate Unwrapped’ which, as is to be expected from a Master of Wine and founding member of the Academy of Chocolate, covers tasting chocolate with insight and authority; but it’s now sadly out of print.

Misleading Science and the Bliss Point

Ever since chocolate was introduced to Europe, pamphlets and books have linked chocolate from everything from “sex and libido” to “baldness and bad breath”, with very little scientific basis.

In particular since research on the Yuna tribe in the 1960s linked heart health to chocolate (and fish), ‘big chocolate’ has realised that there is a tonne of marketing mileage to be had from commissioning, and then publishing, studies showing the links between chocolate and just about anything ‘healthy’ (for a fun list on everything from how chocolate can clean your teeth to improve your complexion please see a previous blog entry HERE).

Whilst these ‘scientific’ studies make for great articles and chapters in books, the tiny size of these studies means that it’s unwise to place much credence in them. So even if the pictures in the books on the likes of raw chocolate are alluring, and even if their “too good to be true” claims are attractive, please be very wary. The ‘science’ behind these sorts of coffee table books is, to be blunt, hogwash.

And if you want to be even more cynical, these pseudo health studies also may also be promoted to avoid the issue of what makes mass produced chocolate so addictive. Unlike coffee with caffeine or wine with alcohol, what makes chocolate addictive isn’t inherent to chocolate. Theobromine, the stimulant in chocolate, is NOT addictive (see HERE).  But what is addictive in mass produced chocolate etc. is SUGAR. And of course this topic is left out of the happy chocolate literature and chocolate superfood books as it opens up a whole can of other issues.

If you want  insights into chocolate nutritional benefits (and a lot of debunking), you’d be best off reading the chapter in Tim Spector’s ‘Spoon-Fed: Why Almost Everything We’ve Been Told About Food Is Wrong’ rather than the claptrap written about raw chocolate, chocolate as a superfood, etc.

Recipes and Cooking

For any avid cook (and those liking great pictures of chocolate), the good news is that every year more and more recipe books featuring chocolate are being published.

And more and more historical cookbooks are also being reprinted (or at least made available digitally). Some of these historical tomes are really fun; for example see a previous blog post for the first book with a chocolate recipe (it’s for ice cream, and is overleaf from what is thought to be the first recipe for tomato ketchup), and for the wonderful history of how Toulouse Lautrec helped popularise chocolate mousse. 

And chocolate is also increasingly being taken as worthy of inclusion in more serious food books, for example if you want to understand the crucial importance of time to craft chocolate, Jenny Linford has this covered in ‘Time, The Missing Ingredient‘ (see below for the book, along with Jenny’s playlist of bars).

…And Coffee Table Books

Agents and publishers have also realised that people like looking at pictures of chocolate cakes, chocolate being ground, great vistas of the jungle, etc. So along with cooking books, more and more coffee table books for gifting etc. are being published.  

Sadly many of these coffee table books perpetuate the pseudo science claims for chocolate, regurgitating nonsense about coconut blossom sugar, raw chocolate, etc. And they’ve half baked, poorly researched copy that mislead about cocoa’s history, biology, etc.

But there are a number of notable exceptions. A number of craft chocolate makers have produced beautiful books that tell you about their journey into craft chocolate, along with some of their favourite recipes (e.g., Raaka, Dandelion, Casa Cacao, etc.)

And if you want to understand more about the science of craft chocolate making, farming and flavour, these books are insightful. If you want to understand why craft chocolate has so much depth, length, balance and complexity these books will illustrate the difference between remoulding mass processed chocolate and crafting directly from great beans. And you’ll be able to see why roasting the whole bean, and not penny pinching to roast just the nibs without their shells, makes such a difference.

Novels and Book Clubs

Chocolate has a bunch of great novels (and many are now movies). ‘Chocolat’ by Joanne Harris. Roald Dahl’s ‘Charlie and The Chocolate Factory’ (and yes, there is a new movie coming up). ‘Like Water for Chocolate’ by Laura Esquivel. ‘Chocolate’ by Sandra Boynton. ‘Chocolate Fever’ by Robert Kimmel Smith. ‘A Room Full of Chocolate’ by Jane Elson. We’re compiling a list, so please help us and add more HERE, and vote for your favourite too.

And a whole bunch of classic detective whodunnits have also just been republished; so if you are a fan of Agatha Christie, please do check out ‘The Poisoned Chocolates Case’ by Anthony Berkeley.

Any which way, there are some great books on chocolate, and some great chocolate playlists to go with these books (see HERE).