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Under The Cacahuatl Spell

Since its discovery by the Olmecs, chocolate through its bitter-sweet history has remained a kind of enigma that has the creators, curators and feasters under its velvety spell – and we aren't complaining! Why, here is the delicious insight. 

By Madhulika Dash 

 

When Conquistador Girolamo Benzoni, one of the first to taste the spicy Aztec cacahuatl, he had disappointingly called it a drink that seems to be more for the pigs than human consumption. Bittered by the bitter, cold drink, he failed to forecast two things: first, that soon enough he would be drinking the same drink due to paucity of wine and slowly making his peace with it; and two the world wide phenomena this dark brown liquid would become in the years to come. 

The year was 1520, almost a decade before the beans were presented to King Philip II, and a century when cacao beans would be Spain's “best guarded secret.” A time when royalty, chefs, priests and even local cooks would work round the clock to give the bitter, grainy drink, a more appealing palatability. Thanks to white sugar, they succeeded somewhat and cacahuatl became the official welcome drink in the court of Spanish Infanta Maria Teresa who was married to the Sun King, Louis XIV. 

Despite the royal patronage, chocolate continued to earn its followers through peer pressure and its fame as a health drink rather than an aphrodisiac and indulgence it is today. 

And the status quo would have remained the same if chocolate hadn't reached the European court partly thanks to the royal wedding alliance at the end of the 17th century, and pirates. In fact, it was a certain Captain Jack Sparrow who may have decided to try the beans of a captured Spanish ship instead of burning it, which they were doing since the 1500s on the behest of the European traders, that changed chocolate's fate. 
 

FROM COLD TO HOT TO GOURMET

 

As one of the exports that reached Britain around the mid 17th century along with sugar, coffee and tea, the  chocolate had its first major makeover – from the grainy, cold, healthy drink to a hot, smooth, sweet treat thanks to an army of curious chefs and bakers, and the keen interest of the powers to be. The first chocolate drink in England interestingly had sugar, long red pepper, cloves, aniseed, almonds, nuts, orange flower water, and, of course, cacao. 

The smoothening of the paste, at least better than the grained one in Mexico, helped chocolate build its clout as it was readily mixed with  lemon peel, eggs, musk, and ambergris. The versatility was such that while chocolate by the turn of the century had earned its spot next to coffee and tea, doubled up as a treatment for smallpox and was a drink that women were discouraged to have. The reason: It aroused sexiness. The health and palate supremacy of chocolate in fact led Doctor Benjamin Rush, one of the earliest advocates of chocolate as medicine, to write to Thomas Jefferson that “chocolate would soon overtake tea and coffee as the American beverage of choice.”

Sadly a few decades later, chocolate was eaten rather than used in drinks.

Today of course, this once Mayan fruit of wellness is a beloved indulgence that is both bitten into and slurped, what has not changed however is the kind of curiosity a bar or powder today manages to entice among the creators, curators and the diners. While the latter looks for newer ways of having their fill, the former work constantly to work on fascinating ways to tell the bean to plate story. And thanks to technology and past innovations, there are plenty of ways to think about chocolate – from its basic forms of dark, bitter, semi-sweet, sweet and even white to the latest Ruby chocolate, and a variety of powders that mollycoddles the creative mind to think beyond. 

On this Chocolate Day, we bring four such fascinating mind and palate teasers from experts who find the world of chocolate one of the intriguing matrices to dabble with every given instance.  
 

THE SWEET PLAY

 

Bobbie Lylod, Chief Baking Officer, Magnolia Bakery, says, “Over a lifetime of baking brownies, I finally have realised that there is no ideal way of making it. Taste is subjective: Some people like them soft and chewy, some adore the crispy edges, some prefer the cake-like kind with walnuts, and then there are me. I like my brownies soft and chewy in the center, a little crispy on the top, dense and fudgy throughout --- never, ever cake-like! and --- always without nuts. The intensity of the chocolate flavour plays a huge part. I prefer it rich and very dark, so I use both unsweetened dark cocoa powder (22 to 24%) and semi-sweet chocolate chips. As with all cakes and brownies, the better the cocoa, the richer the flavour and texture will be.”

Agreed French specialist, Ameil Gurien, Founder Ameil Gourmet who finds chocolate to be natural elevators to French desserts. “Chocolate Eclair is an all-time favourite classic French patisserie. What else could you choose to represent France on Chocolate Day? The choux pastry, once baked to a crispy golden brown, is filled with luscious dark chocolate custard and then topped with a dark chocolate glaze. Of course, the use of the right format of chocolate plays a big role to bring forth the artistry that french pastry making is associated with.”
 

 


Chocolate's natural luxuriant nature and the clever way it pairs with spices is a quality that continues to fascinate Chef Anirudh Nopany, Co-founder of Brik Oven the most. And the finest way Chef Nopany showcases it is hot chocolate, a drink he defines as “a drink that embodies simplicity and unparalleled comfort.” And to get that unmistakable hug like feeling, the seasoned culinary mind plays with both the right quality of spices and chocolate, even the locally grown versions if the need be. As a drink that has very little to hide behind, says he, “a fine quality chocolate that has nose notes of spices remains the best way to create this English treat.”

A fact that Ashish D’abreo, Q Grader, Coffee Roaster and Co-founder of Maverick & Farmer Coffee endorses too. "Originally used by the French as a nod to the colour of coffee "Hazel", the complexity of peanut butter and chocolate are a harmony of warm flavours both nutty and rich”.