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Willie Harcourt-Cooze and Willie's Cacao

My passion for chocolate was born of a love of adventure. That spirit took me to Venezuela, led me to buy a hacienda in the cloud forest and made my early forays in harvesting cacao a perfect point of purpose and excitement. It continues to take me around the world in my quest for flavour.

Sometimes the road less travelled is longer, harder and less certain but that is why it is exciting. You do not always end up somewhere you want to stay, but you learn so much getting there it is always worth the journey. I do not always have all the questions let alone the answers, but that’s what you work out along the way.

So, when exploring the Venezuelan Andes in 1993 with my wife, Tania, and her sister and Carlos, the Colombian artist we’d met, told us we had to go to “Choroni, where the mountains meet the sea,” a new adventure began.

Choroni was as beautiful as Carlos described. Mervyn, the beach umbrella seller, who took a fancy to Tania’s sister, told us of a hacienda in the cloud forest for sale. We went to investigate Hacienda El Tesoro in the Henri Pittier National Park, where 1800 metre mountains steep into the Caribbean Sea.

I knew from a guidebook that some of the best cacao in the world grew in the region, but this was my first introduction to the cacao tree and their beautiful multi-coloured pods. Tania and I never intended to buy a one thousand acre cacao farm in the Venezuelan cloud forest. But surrounded by the colours and the teeming life, I felt at home. And then the owner, Fernando, changed his mind and decided not to sell.

Three years later, after returning to London and almost giving up hope, I got a phonecall. I sold the flat and bought the farm. Fernando had fallen in love with the place as a boy and vowed to buy it, but his children were not interested in farming. I think the interest I showed meant a lot to him.

The forest still feels like home. I am more relaxed and in my element surrounded by the sights, sounds and smells of the forest than anywhere else. I can close my eyes and be back walking the land and emerging into the sunlight or picking up a freshly fallen mango for breakfast.

Bertillio and Ricardo, Fernando’s farm managers, who are still with me, taught me the basics of chocolate making. I had not realised how much work goes into it. The bean grows through so many stages of preparation. It is time and labour intensive and maybe that is why it always feels like magic when you get the beautiful thick cacao liquid. The first thing I made with the first batch was a hot chocolate drink. I added water and a little honey and it blew my mind, I was filled with energy. It works like that in the factory I have built in Devon. I am up before six everyday and it picks me up and keeps me buzzing.

I feel very lucky with how the adventure has worked out. A lot of blood, sweat, tears more sweat and tonnes of cacao have been poured into it, but I can trace much of what has helped me make it work to my childhood.

I was born in London on April 29, 1964 to an Irish mother and a Burmese father, the third of five children, surrounded by four sisters. While on holiday in Ireland, my dad, William, fell in love with and bought the deserted Horse Island on a wild stretch off Ireland’s south west coast. We moved when I was four. In a farmhouse between Ballydehob and Schull we spent our time making cheese, smoking fish, milling flour, growing vegetables and pickling fruit. I fished and foraged and loved it. I am told I was reeling in sea trout before I can remember.

It is possible to be both a dreamer and a doer. My father gave me the skills to put together the machinery and build the chocolate factory. We were always tinkering with engines and contraptions. That allowed me to find and restore the antique chocolate machines that I loved and I knew would make fine cacao and chocolate in a way that can be lost with some modern machinery – and make a virtue out having a very tight budget.

I came back to London at 15 and at 18 left home for a series of adventures and tastes; from the feral meats of the Australian outback to the native dishes of Peru, via a feast of exotic delicacies throughout the Far East. I talked my way onto fishing boats and into local kitchens and devoured a multitude of culinary secrets.

Flavour is king. Travelling around Venezuela with my little beaten up pan I would make ganache from different cacao I found. Cream is a great neutral and allows you to taste the flavours of the bean. The best tastes always come from fine ingredients that are not mishandled or contaminated. That was why I wanted to popularise cacao as a pure ingredient. It is so versatile, powerful and delicious but the way it has been packaged and mixed in Europe since its discovery and export by the Conquistadors has often done it few flavour favours.

I want people to experience some of the awakening I did - the zing of fruit or nut flavours that are product of genetics, soil and climate. With 100 per cent cacao cylinder in your hand you can decide whether to make a sweet or savoury dish and you can taste the bean. With the chocolate bars the only thing I add is Cuban organic sugar and some extra cocoa butter for even more smoothness.

The quest continues. In the past year I have crossed Venezuela three times, visited a cooperative in former FARC territory in Colombia, been up to Mexico and across Sierra Leone. I am going to keep finding fine beans, keep dreaming, keep doing and keep following the road less travelled into the forests of the world.

Viva Cacao

Willie Harcourt-Cooze

The History of Chocolate

When Carl Linnaeus, the 18th century Swedish naturalist, named the cacao tree, Theobroma cacao, meaning ‘the food of the gods’, he was not exaggerating – although his frank admission of how chocolate cured his hemorrhoids may have coloured his perspective.

Cacao and later chocolate has been revered and consumed in ever increasing amounts, from its origins as a ceremonial drink and currency in Mesoamerica and in the Aztec empire to the modern day associations of chocolate as an aphrodisiac.

The history of chocolate has lengthened by more than a millennium in the last decade. Before 2002 there was very little evidence of the use of cacao in Mesoamerica. But archaeological finds in Mexico have shown that the Mokaya were consuming cacao between 1900 and 1500 BC.

Emerging civilizations learnt from those they were surpassing. It is thought the Mayans must have observed the Olmecs and likewise the Aztecs, the Mayans. The Spanish Conquistadors may not have liked their first tastes, but they quickly recognized its value to those they were invading.

In the next century the additions of sugar and milk began the process of converting a drink that had usually been taken cold with water and additions like chili and maize into what we would understand as hot chocolate. Only by the mid 19th century was chocolate being consumed in solid and then bar form in any quantity.

But 18th century chocolate lovers would probably be astonished by the majority of chocolate now, which is more a mixture of sugar, milk and vegetable fat. Two hundred and fifty years ago, different chocolate was typically known and advertised by its port of origin, with Caracas beans, usually one of the most sought after.

History may look back on our time now as the beginning of re-emergence of this demand for provenance. Single origin beans and estates are increasingly sort after by those who appreciate chocolate in all its different forms.

Even more than this, I am hopeful that cacao will be recognized for its versatility around the world in the way it is in South and Central America. I grew to love it as a savoury treat as much as a sweet in Venezuela. This is one thing that largely got lost in translation in the last 500 years but new generation is now speaking the language.

Viva Cacao!


For a fuller story of the history of chocolate please click here.

The History of Chocolate

While I was visiting a plantation in Colombia on one of my bean-tasting expeditions, I came across a young girl eating the white pulp that surrounds the beans inside a cacao pod. Her father had opened the pod for her with a machete, skilfully removing the upper casing to reveal a small mountain of pulpy seeds inside.

As her dad and I walked through the trees, discussing the growing conditions of the plantation, she happily followed behind us, sucking on the delectable pulp and spitting out the bitter-tasting beans.
‘Es bueno?’ I asked her. ‘Deliciosa!’ she admitted shyly, her cheeks bulging.

Cacao pulp must have been what first attracted the native peoples of South America to the cacao pod, not to mention all the other forest animals, jutting unusually from tree trunks and branches. Sweet and tangy, often with citrus, even sherbety notes, it’s a mouthwatering treat that my kids can’t get enough of when we’re on my farm in Venezuela. Eating it, you would never guess that it bore any relation to chocolate – and perhaps the ancient peoples of Amazonia were none the wiser either. There is evidence that they sucked the pulp and used it to make a beverage, probably an alcoholic one, but like the plantation owner’s daughter, they threw away the beans. It wasn’t until much later, and much further away, that the seeds were cultivated into cacao.

I was keen to explore the origins of chocolate as soon as I bought the Hacienda El Tesoro, which has a history of growing and processing cacao that dates back to 1640. In England, I searched out books and documents that would inform me, and I avidly read one particular book, The Chocolate Tree by Allen M. Young, which is full of edifying facts and stories. My neighbour, Kai Rosenberg, who owns four haciendas below my farm, was always quoting it at me. ‘I’ve read it!’ I kept telling him. But he kept on quoting it to me nonetheless.

That’s how I learned that the cacao tree evolved in the lowland rainforests of the Upper Amazon Basin. Not much is known about it in its wild, early form. Some experts believe it’s possible that the tree we know today is the result of selective cross-breeding by prehistoric South American peoples, or perhaps it evolved naturally. Either way, two distinct strains – criollo and forastero – made the long journey north from the lower, eastern flanks of the Andes to Central America, where the Mokaya people of the Pacific coast and the pre-Olmecs living around the coast of the Gulf of Mexico cultivated cacao and came to understand its true benefits.

How did the cacao tree make its way north? Again, no one knows for sure. Perhaps it happened through natural distribution, with the pods being carried by the sea along the coast, or maybe the ancient Amazonians had begun to realize that the seeds had a stimulating effect and took them along as they migrated up through the continent. Since cacao pods remain attached to the trees, unless they are picked by animals or humans, they must have been helped on their way.

What seems certain from sample analysis is that chocolate- making was born in Mexico. Traces of theobromine, a bitter alkaloid found in cacao that resembles caffeine, have recently been found on fragments of drinking vessels that date back as far as 1900 B.C., in the Mexican state of Chiapas (Antiquity Vol 81 Issue 314 December 2007).

It makes sense that the Mokaya and pre-Olmecs were the first people to experiment with processing cacao, because they were the first people in the region to settle down in organized villages, where they had more time and space than their nomadic predecessors to experiment with food. First, they invented a process called nixtamalization, a way of soaking maize and cooking it using lime, which unlocked nutritious amino acids, reduced any toxins, improved the flavour and made it easier to grind. Unlike the boiled, pounded or ground maize that people were eating before, nixtamalized maize could be kneaded into a smooth dough and made into tortillas and tamales.

The sixteenth-century Spanish invaders were appalled when they first came across this process; they thought that the natives were poisoning their food with lime, whereas in fact they were bumping up the nutrients. Once the pre-Olmecs had sorted out their staple diet, they could relax and play around with other foods, including cacao, which grew on trees in the shade of the jungle canopy all around them. They would only have needed to leave a basket of cacao beans idle for a few days to have recognized the changes wrought by fermentation, which is essential to the development of a chocolaty flavour. As with so many breakthroughs in history, it was probably some happy accident, combined with the natural inquisitiveness of the human mind, that led to one of the greatest discoveries in the history of food.

From there it would have been a short step to discovering that processed cacao is delicious, nutritious and energizing. They roasted it in earthenware pots, crushed it between stones and added water, making it into a drink that was so healthy and stimulating that it wasn’t long before they began to prize cacao beans above all their other resources. They grew to revere it so much that they used it as currency – yes, cash actually grew on trees back then! One sixteenth-century chronicler noted that a rabbit was worth ten beans and a slave could be bought for a hundred beans.

But cacao wasn’t by any means easy money because the tree that produces cacao isn’t at all easy to grow. It is fussy, requiring the hot, damp conditions that can only be found 20 degrees north and 20 degrees south of the Equator; it must be planted next to taller trees that protect it from direct sun; and it won’t bear fruit until it’s three to five years old. Even then, each tree produces just 1000 beans a year, which is only enough to make about a kilo of chocolate.

The cacao tree won’t thrive at high altitudes where temperatures drop to below 16 oC; it demands year-round moisture; and it is vulnerable to all kinds of diseases, from moulds and rots to a catastrophic growth known as ‘witch’s brooms’. What’s more, cacao farming is incredibly labour- intensive and time-consuming. Even today, every stage of the process, from planting, irrigating and harvesting to fermenting and drying is done mainly by hand. That’s why nearly all the world’s cacao trees are grown on small family farms. A lot of work, care and attention is needed to produce really fine cacao.
The early colonials noted that cacao was used as a medicine among the native peoples of Mexico and Guatemala. It was reputed to build strength, aid digestion and combat tiredness, anaemia, fever and low sex drive, among other complaints. Modern research has also shown it to have many health benefits.

In a pilot study at Brunel University in the UK, Dr Emma Ross, Lecturer in Sport and Exercise Physiology, concluded that cacao is a stimulant because it increases the resting heart rate. Her findings also suggested that it helps to burn more fat during exercise and use up less carbohydrate. Great news for healthy dieters! Even more amazing, Dr Ross noted that individuals were finding exactly the same level of exercise easier after a cacao drink.

Other research has shown that dark chocolate stimulates feel-good endorphins, contains flavonoids, which are a powerful antioxidant, and serotonin, which acts as an anti-depressant. New studies have suggested that eating dark chocolate can be beneficial to blood circulation and may even lower blood pressure (www.livescience.com/health).

It’s therefore maddening to think that most of the chocolate we now drink and eat is not in the slightest bit nutritious, but just plain fattening. Your average chocolate confectionery bar contains no more than 5–10% cacao liquor; the rest is mainly fat and sugar. In the last 150 years, as manufacturing methods have advanced, the mass market has transformed chocolate from the all- time healthy drink into the all-time unhealthy luxury.

Yet even in its most diluted and polluted form, the world is still as crazy about chocolate as the Maya people were 3000 years ago, when they descended from the highlands of Guatemala and began saying the pre-Olmec word kakawa or kakaw with wonder in their eyes, having mixed enough with the Olmec descendants to realize that there was a magic bean in their midst.

By 250 A.D., the Maya were enjoying a cultural explosion that saw fantastic cities, palaces and temples spring up throughout northern Guatemala and the southern Yucatán in Mexico. They painted, carved, sculpted, made pottery, wrote books and, in their writings, arts and crafts, they celebrated the rituals that had sprung up around cacao. There are gods depicted doing all kinds of things with cacao pods and beans, from offering up plates piled high with beans to piercing their ears and splattering blood all over them. Children were anointed with perfumed cacao in naming ceremonies; sacrificial victims were plied with it before they went to their death; and the elite class were buried with bowls, jars and cylindrical vases filled with frothy cacao drinks to give them the strength and energy they needed to make their way into the next life.

The Maya probably drank all kinds of cacao mixtures, some hot, some cold, some warm, spicy or sweet, adding herbs, honey or chilli peppers for flavour, or maize starch as a thickener. The cacao and maize drinks were highly nutritious, combining the amino acids that were released by soaking the maize kernel in lime, plus all the life-giving elements that cacao offers.

After the roasted beans had been pounded and water added, a foam rose up on the surface and this froth was considered the most desirable part of the drink. The Maya, and the Aztecs after them, went to extraordinary lengths to increase the foam, endlessly pouring the cacao and water from a great height from one vessel into another. This is a very natural way of agitating the cacao to remove the bitterness and bring out its intense flavour notes, which in its modern, mechanized form is known as conching. Later, the Spanish managed to sidestep this exhausting process by inventing a wooden swizzle stick – called a molinillo – to beat the liquid with and raise the foam. Funnily enough, although the chocolate drink we consume today barely resembles the drink of old, we still love the idea of frothy hot chocolate, with added cream or machine-aerated milk.

The Aztecs seem to have preferred their chocolate drink cold; they flavoured it with chilli, honey flowers, peanut butter and vanilla. Chocolate was an elitist drink for them, as it had been for the Maya; like the Maya they offered it up to their gods and it was restricted mainly to the priest, warrior and merchant classes. It was drunk on special occasions, at ceremonies, festivals and sacrificial offerings, and often combined with a common red food colouring called achiote. It must have been frightening to see priests offering up sacrifices to the gods, with blood-like fluid dripping from their mouths!

It is interesting that the Maya and Aztecs consumed so many varieties of drinking chocolate, whereas today we favour a standard mix of chocolate, sugar and milk. Why aren’t we keener on flavouring our hot chocolate, perhaps with chilli or vanilla? Once I had discovered the wonders of cacao in my farmhouse kitchen, it didn’t take me long to start adding ingredients to my chocolate drinks. There was nutmeg growing on the lawn outside the farmhouse, so naturally it was one of my first additions, and I went wild about the combination of chocolate and chilli, which we also grew on the farm. I could see why the Aztecs used more chilli than sweeteners in their cacahuatl (literally ‘cacao water’.) I’m convinced that the chilli opens up the flavour receptors in the mouth, enhancing and complementing the full complex flavours of the cacao.

Chocolate also has age-old associations with romance. It was drunk at elite Maya marriage ceremonies, like champagne is today, and cacao beans were exchanged between couples at betrothals.

But usually most Mayan and Aztec women missed out on cacao because it was reserved for priests, and the warrior and merchant classes. Things changed with the conquest of Mesoamerica. In his memoirs, the sixteenth-century conquistador Bernal Díaz describes a banquet in Mexico City in 1538, where the ladies drank cacahuatl out of golden goblets. By 1590, according to another traveller, Spanish women in the New World had become totally addicted to chocolate. Since the señoras had control of their hacienda kitchens, this may partly be why it went on to become so popular among the settlers and their creole descendants.

The Spanish used cacao medicinally for many different ailments, from bruises and cuts to respiratory problems. As time went by, it began to gain credibility as a treatment for ‘feminine complaints’, and by 1815, women in England were being encouraged in medical pamphlets to mix chocolate with ‘iron water’ (whatever that was!) when they felt ‘out of sorts’.

Modern research into the cravings of the female sex has shown that chocolate increases libido and counteracts mood swings in women. It contains magnesium and iron, so female chocolate cravings might signal a physical need for these nutrients because magnesium levels rise and fall during the menstrual cycle and iron may become depleted. Chocolate also contains phenylethylamine, another chemical that is found naturally in the body; it releases a dopamine in the brain that stimulates physical pleasure. It has been suggested that this is why some women say they prefer chocolate to sex, although this is probably oversimplifying things. After all, men love chocolate too.

Perhaps part of chocolate’s appeal is that it contains a molecule called anandamide, which is said to activate cellular receptors and make you feel happy and high. I am the living proof of this theory! Whenever I experience a dip in energy at the factory, I whip up a quick hot chocolate booster, or just grab a bite of unsweetened cacao if I’m pressed for time. Within minutes, I’m buzzing and energized again. My chocolate never fails to uplift me.

Cacao was revered for its aphrodisiacal properties among the Maya and the Aztecs in ancient times. The conquistador Bernal Díaz describes seeing the Aztec emperor Motecuhzoma consume vast quantities of a cacao drink, which he was told was for success with women.
The Spanish were very taken with the idea of chocolate as a love potion. Although the Church usually allowed it to be drunk by priests and monks during fasting, a number of Inquisition documents reveal a deep suspicion of its alleged power to excite the venereal appetite, citing examples of men who sought out ‘knowledgeable women’, or witches, to cook up seductive chocolate drinks with which to debauch their targets. Equally, women would mix their blood with chocolate in order to seduce unwilling men.

In the eighteenth century, the notorious Marquis de Sade was implicated in a scandal involving the known aphrodisiac Spanish fly, with which he is alleged to have spiked the chocolate pastilles on offer at one of his balls, provoking a spontaneous, frenzied orgy. The marquis was a huge fan of chocolate. Not only did he consume it in coffee, biscuits, cakes and drinks, but he swore by cacao butter suppositories for his piles! Casanova was another chocolate devotee. He fervently believed it to be an aphrodisiac, often drinking it to enhance his love-making.

Christopher Columbus was the first European to set eyes on cacao, on his fourth voyage to the ‘New World’ that he had ‘discovered’ 12 years previously. According to an account written by his son Ferdinand, he was heading for Jamaica when he landed on the island of Guanaja, around 50 kilometres north of Honduras, on 15 August 1502. That same day, a huge canoe came into view across the turquoise waters around the island; it was a Maya trading canoe, the size of a galley ship, stocked up with maize, manioc, maize wine and what appeared to be almonds, but were in fact cacao beans.

Columbus immediately realized that cacao was important to the natives because when he captured the canoe and brought its goods on board his ship, the Maya merchants couldn’t take their eyes off the cacao, scurrying to pick up every bean that fell on deck. But the great explorer never tasted it or understood why it was so precious. He was too focused on finding gold to understand what he was missing. He is said to have presented it to Ferdinand and Isabella at the Spanish court on his return, but they dismissed it out of hand as being too bitter. So it wasn’t until 1517, when the Spaniards invaded the Yucatán, that anyone outside Mexico began to catch on. In 1519, Hernán Cortés and his crew watched the great Aztec ruler Moctezuma knocking back cacao in huge quantities and were fascinated to see how assiduously his attendants whipped up a foam before serving it up.

Cacahuatl wasn’t an instant hit with the settlers. Many Spanish invaders took native women as wives and they and their Creole descendants inevitably adopted the custom of drinking cacao. Crucially, though, they began to adapt it to their European tastes by adding cane sugar and substituting cinnamon, black pepper and aniseed for chilli and achiote. They also found a way of making instant hot chocolate, by manufacturing a tablet of ground cacao that could be dissolved with sugar in hot water.

I like to think that the Aztecs used cacao in cooking, although we don’t know for sure. Today, Mexico is famous for its savoury moles, or sauces, containing chocolate. The innovation of mole poblano is often attributed to Spanish nuns in Mexico during the mid-seventeenth century, but there’s no real proof of this. However, there is firm evidence that it was used in pies, pastas and meat dishes in northern Italy from 1680 onwards, so maybe the Italians were the first European innovators and perhaps the Creole population of Mexico was also experimenting with cacao in its cooking.

There are three varieties of Theobroma cacao, as it was officially named in 1753 by the Swedish scientist Carl von Linné. They are criollo, forastero and trinitario, and multiple hybrids exist of each strain. Criollo and forastero came first, but although they both evolved in the Amazon Basin, they are quite distinct from one another. Forastero is typically the hardier strain and has a higher yield of cacao pods. As a result, it’s easier and cheaper to grow, which is why it accounts for more than three-quarters of the world’s cacao crop. Forastero beans give a classic chocolate taste, but tend to lack the subtle flavour notes of the less robust, less productive criollo, which produces a much more interesting range of flavours and aromas.

Criollo beans are what the Maya and Aztecs went wild about, the strain that later seduced and enchanted Europeans in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Forastero is generally used to make mass-produced chocolate. It’s consistent and reliable, but can be rather bland. Just as in Maya and Aztec times, when lower-grade cacao was mixed with maize and other seeds, while high-quality chocolate was drunk in a purer form, present-day manufacturers use cheaper, less interesting cacao to make average confectionery and save the fine, rare beans for making rich, flavoursome dark chocolate.
Since cacao is so variable, as well as so valuable, the chocolate industry has always attracted counterfeiters and swindlers. Aztec market traders, when selling cacao beans, often used to make their wares go further by mixing them up with avocado stones, bits of dough, wax, clay and anything else that could pass for the real thing. In Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, chocolate was frequently diluted with brick dust or red lead, and lard was added to cacao butter to bulk it out. These days, the mainstream confectionery companies print their ingredients on the labels so that everyone can see how much fat, sugar and lecithin goes into your average bar, yet amazingly people still call it chocolate!

The trinitario bean has an interesting history. When virtually the entire crop of Trinidad’s criollo cacao was wiped out in the eighteenth century – either by a hurricane or by a plant disease of some kind – forastero trees were introduced to the island, where they cross-pollinated with the few remaining criollo trees to produce a new strain of cacao. Trinitario is hardier than criollo, but tastier than forastero, so it’s very versatile. Some of my favourite chocolates are made from trinitario beans.

Today, criollo tends to be the preferred bean of chocolate connoisseurs. There are many varieties of criollo cacao and almost all of them grow in Venezuela. Once upon a time, Venezuelan cacao was called ‘Caracas’ wherever it was imported, but now it is known by the region in which it grows, just like wine. Chuao, which is considered by some people to be among the world’s finest cacao, comes from a village in Venezuela very near to my hacienda, where the soil and climate produce beans with a full, rich flavour. Porcelana Blanca, another highly prized variety, was originally called Maracaibo because it came from the area around Lake Maracaibo. Rio Caribe, one of my favourite trinitarios, grows in the beautiful northeast coastal region of Venezuela of the same name, not far from Puerto Carenero, where another beautiful trinitario is grown.

Fermentation is crucial to the taste of cacao: without it, cacao beans won’t develop a chocolate flavour, but if you mess it up, you can ruin a great cacao harvest. After the beans and pulp have been removed from the pod, they are placed in hardwood boxes, covered in banana leaves and turned twice a day to aerate them. Inside the boxes, the beans soon become a big mulchy mass and juice leaks from the pulp. The oxygen in the air activates the enzymes in the pulp sugar, causing it to acidify, which changes the chemical composition of the beans. Yeast cells, that grow and divide as a result of this change, produce alcohol and carbon dioxide, causing the beans to heat up; they give off a strong aroma as they reach temperatures of around 52oC. It’s a natural chemical process and the most important stage is the rise in temperature: the porous shell of the cacao bean expands; there is traffic between inside and out; and the aroma of chocolate starts to develop.

Fermentation has been around for thousands of years, but it wasn’t until the scientist Louis Pasteur identified what was happening during the process in 1856 that it was understood and formalized. The British later developed and systemized cacao fermentation on their plantations in Trinidad and Jamaica. So how did the Maya and Aztecs get it right? One theory is that they put their cacao in boxes to let it drain before they put it out to dry, perhaps unaware that this process of natural fermentation was crucial to developing the chocolate flavour. For them, draining the pulp may simply have made the drying process easier; anyway, criollo beans need to be fermented for only a few days. Other varieties may take up to six days.

So much has changed in the world since the first cacao shipments sailed from Veracruz in Mexico to Seville in Spain. Yet cacao is still carried by sea from its country of origin, albeit in huge container ships, and it is still often transported in sacks, although jute sacks were banned in the 1970s because of a contaminant in the jute. The larger cacao processors now seem to prefer what’s known as the ‘mega-bulk’ method, loading their beans loose into containers or directly into the hold.

Today, Amsterdam is the most important cacao port in the world. There are between 500,000 and 600,000 tonnes of cacao in the port at any one time, which is about a fifth of the world’s entire supply. So it’s not surprising that when my quest for fine beans began to extend beyond first Venezuela and then South America, I was told that Holland was the place to find a quality cacao dealer. That’s how I found Daarnhouwer & Co, the company that now supplies me with cacao beans from around the world.

How and when did cacao first make its way to Spain? Nobody is quite sure. For some reason, Hernán Cortés is often credited with introducing it to the Spanish court, possibly when he sent a ship of booty from Veracruz to Spain in 1519, although cacao isn’t mentioned in the list of cargo. During the conquest of Mexico two years later, Cortés issued chocolate to his soldiers and claimed that the men could march all day after drinking just one cup. So did he take cacao with him in 1528, when he arrived at the court of Charles V, bearing an extravagant array of gifts from Mexico, including jaguars, dwarfs, mirrors and bouncing balls? Again, there’s no hard evidence.
In 1544, a group of Dominican Friars introduced a delegation of Guatemalan Maya to Prince Philip in Spain. Among the offerings they brought were clay gourds filled with beaten chocolate, so perhaps this was chocolate’s debut in Europe. Either way, it wasn’t imported officially until 1585, so it wasn’t an overnight sensation. Yet during the first half of the seventeenth century, it became wildly popular at the Spanish court, where it was drunk hot, spicy and sweet.

An expensive import, chocolate was an elite drink among the Spanish, just as it had been for the Maya and Aztecs. The Spanish, however, viewed it as medicinal rather than magical or spiritual; it was thought to aid digestion and circulation, among other things. Meanwhile, by the mid-sixteenth century, chocolate was being drunk by virtually everyone in Mesoamerica, rich and poor, and more than one traveller to the New World noted that in some areas it was becoming a common addiction. Mexico was by far the biggest market for cacao.

There’s a famous story about a group of passionate chocoholics who turned nasty when someone tried to get between them and their drinking chocolate. The trouble began when a bishop of Chiapas, Mexico, became irritated with the ladies of his congregation, who insisted that they needed to drink hot chocolate during mass because of their weak stomachs. He banned chocolate from the cathedral and threatened to excommunicate anyone who ate or drank during services. Unwilling to do without their mid-mass fix, the ladies began to attend church in the convents instead of the cathedral. Despite being told about rumours of death threats against him, the bishop stood firm. The cathedral emptied altogether and shortly afterwards the bishop was found dead, having drunk a bowl of chocolate laced with poison. To this day, there’s a Mexican proverb that warns: ‘Beware the chocolate of Chiapas’.

Because of its dark, rich flavours and pungent aroma, chocolate was an effective way to mask the bitter taste of poison – although this wouldn’t work with my chocolate because the poison would flatten out the flavour notes! Chocolate is behind a litany of crimes of passion, revenge and mercy killings – even Pope Clement XIV was allegedly murdered with a cup of bitter tasting chocolate. The Duchess of Portsmouth was convinced that King Charles II had been poisoned with a ‘dish’ of chocolate at her house in 1685, although he probably died of kidney failure; a spurned mistress of Napoleon is also reported to have added something suspect to his chocolate beverage, hoping to exact vengeance with a deliciously deadly weapon.

Chocolate was often used in love potions and witchcraft spells, according to documents reporting cases that were brought before Inquisition Tribunals in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Over and again, people either confessed to or denounced their neighbours for mixing menstrual blood, crow’s heart, human flesh and excrement into hot chocolate and offering it to their chosen victim. It was the ideal vehicle for these concoctions because who in their right mind would turn down a delicious cup of steaming chocolate? But the Inquisition came down hard on these misguided chefs, who risked death for their superstitious experiments. Ironically, chocolate was one of the refreshments served to high-ranking officials, priests and nobles at the auto-da-fés, where the Inquisition’s victims were publicly and cruelly punished or killed.

With demand for cacao rising rapidly, the colonialists in New Spain saw it as a way to make vast sums of money. At first, they made slaves of the local population and put them to work on the plantations, but then Pope Paul III outlawed the enslavement of Indians in 1537. So they instituted a legal system of forced work called encomienda, exacting tribute from the natives in the form of labour in return for teaching them Spanish and Christianity. But that didn’t work either because the Indians began to die in alarming numbers from Old World diseases and epidemics against which they had no immunity. Shockingly, disease and maltreatment meant that by the end of the seventeenth century, only about a tenth of the Indian population had survived the hostile takeover of their country.
Cacao production dropped drastically and the price shot up. New sources of cacao were needed to feed the growing national obsession. The answer lay in South America, particularly Ecuador and Venezuela. In Ecuador there were vast forests of wild cacao that the conquistadores had begun to cultivate at the beginning of the seventeenth century, later using African slaves in the place of Indians. This was forastero cacao: hardy, high- yielding and often bitter. The Mexican market didn’t like it all that much – it was known as cacao de los pobres (poor man’s cacao). But given a choice between Ecuadorian forastero and nothing, the addicted Mesoamericans had to make do.

Venezuelan cacao was much more popular because it was predominantly the tastier criollo variety that grew on plantations along the country’s Caribbean coast. It’s tragic to think that slaves were worked to death on these haciendas. Cacao is life-enriching and should be produced with love, but sadly it has a darker history. Much of Venezuela’s crop made its way to Europe, where society ladies and dandies sipped it without a care for the human suffering involved in its production.

Italy discovered the wonders of Venezuelan chocolate in the early seventeenth century, shortly followed by France. The first chocolate house opened in London in 1657 and was an instant success. The brilliant diarist Samuel Pepys even mentions that he ‘went to Mr Bland’s and there drank my morning draft of chocolate’. Serving up hot chocolate in the mornings is no longer very common in Britain, where we think of it more as a milky soporific drink that will lull us into dreamland. But a morning chocolate pick-me-up remains a widespread custom in Europe and South America. Today, the Colombians produce 30,000 tonnes of cacao for the internal market, to quench their thirst for morning chocolate; and the Spanish traditionally drink a dark, sweet elixir made from cacao and sugar that hasn’t changed much for over 400 years.

Whole industries grew up around the drinking of chocolate in Europe. First, chocolate-pot lids were pierced with holes to fit the molinillo beating stick – a design that is still on sale in Mexican markets today. The French developed silver chocolate pots with built in molinillos (or moussoirs, as they called them), and porcelain cups and saucers also became popular. Later, when making chocolate became more mechanized, there was an
explosion of chocolate-related equipment and merchandise. One of the most intriguing of the specialized chocolate ceramics was the trembleuse stand, devised for people with shaky hands by the Marqués de Mancera, Viceroy of Mexico, himself a palsy sufferer. The trembleuse (known as a mancerina in Mexico) is a special saucer with a cup holder that steadied the cup, like a reinforced, exaggerated saucer lip. Since chocolate was often administered as nourishment for the old and the sick, it became a standard piece in every chocolate set.

Although chocolate was predominantly a drink, it was also used in desserts to complement candied fruits and ices. It’s easy to make a chocolate spread or sauce by adding just a small amount of water to sugar and cacao, and it’s a great way to make the chocolate flavours shine. I’ve always been very conscious of the nasty chocolate spreads that are out there and, not wanting my kids to eat them, I’ve made a lot of simple chocolate spreads and ice-cream sauces over the years, using organic cane sugar. My Cream Chocolate Sauce (see page 124) is very rich and lush, so I tend to save that for sorbets, while the water-based Dark Chocolate Sauce (see page 125) is ideal for ice cream.
While chocolate was making its way around the world, cacao cultivation spread to other parts of South America, such as Brazil and Paraguay, and several Caribbean islands, including Trinidad, where the trinitario variety was born 30 years after most of the island’s cacao trees died out in 1727. At first, the Spanish controlled cacao export from the New World, directing every shipment through the port of Cadiz. But soon the merchants and growers of Venezuela were circumventing this monopoly and illegally selling to Dutch traders. Many sea battles ensued!

Cacao made it to Africa via the islands of Principe and Sao Tomé, west of Gabon, where the Portuguese planted forastero cuttings taken from Brazil. More cuttings were taken to Equatorial New Guinea and the colonies of Portuguese Africa. Then, in 1879, a West African blacksmith took some plants home to Ghana, where the British governor seized upon the idea of growing cacao and encouraged its cultivation. Cacao then journeyed on to Nigeria and to the Ivory Coast, which is now the world’s largest producer. Moving east, the Spanish took it to the Philippines, the British to Sri Lanka and the Dutch to Java and Sumatra. By 1991, Africa was the source of just over half of the world’s cacao, while Mexico, cacao’s birthplace, supplied only 1.5%. I recently found out from Willem at Daarnhouwer & Co
that the beans I use to make my Madagascan 71% chocolate bar are grown from trees that arrived on the island as seedlings from Venezuela 100 years ago! Once Venezuelan criollo, they have now developed their own flavour.

Natural disasters have a tremendous impact on the supply of cacao. The beans from Bahia in Brazil are very standard these days, because ‘witch’s brooms’ disease almost wiped out the cacao crop. It’s on the rise again, but Jan says that it’s nothing special yet, although I recently tasted a very promising Brazilian bean. Costa Rican cacao was apparently very good until 1984, when a particularly nasty root rot ravaged the crops. Where Costa Rica once produced 4000 tonnes of cacao annually, now it produces just 200 tonnes.

While I was in Mexico, I saw for myself how disease can ravage a cacao crop. Four years ago, an incurable fungus arrived in Chiapas, probably from Honduras, carried on people’s shoes, in their bags and on fruit they had forgotten to leave behind before crossing the border. The effect on Mexican plantations has been devastating, reducing the crop by as much as 80% in some areas. Only the really well-tended plantations with large workforces have remained unaffected; the average cacao farmer in Mexico is really suffering. Experts are investigating the way spores carry fungus and are seeking a cure through the study
of cacao genetics, but it’s widely felt that many of the affected plantations will have to be completely replanted. However, waiting three to five years for new trees to mature would put many small farmers out of business. It’s a huge dilemma.

Problems like these mean that the big cacao processing companies are only interested in disease-resistant hybrids that can be consistently sourced in enormous quantities; they are less concerned with sourcing a variety of flavours or producing high quality chocolate. Things have changed so much in the last few decades. In the 1970s, a box of Black Magic chocolates was made from beans sourced from a variety of countries; chocolate from Jamaica, Grenada and Papua New Guinea were added to the 60% Ghanaian chocolate base, whereas now only a couple of blends are used. I understand that the big companies don’t want to take risks, but it’s a real shame. The Javan light breaking cacao that I use to make my Indonesian 69 chocolate is difficult to source because it’s not consistent. Every year the crop is different. And yet for me it’s worth the gamble because the flavour is like no other.

But profit is the bottom line for the big chocolate companies, and this has led them to buy up one another and grow into massive conglomerates. As I stood on the freezing dock at Zaandam, where some of the world’s biggest cacao-processing factories lie nearby along the river Zaan, I wondered what would happen if the world’s big bean-buyers started making chocolate on a large scale? What if they bought up all the chocolate factories of the world, apart from the tiny independents, in the same way that they have swallowed the smaller cacao processors? Is it possible that one day these enormous conglomerates will dominate the industry, perhaps come close to a chocolate monopoly? One thing is certain – the number of specialist-origin bean dealers is dwindling because the demand for high-yielding, fast-growing hybrid cacao with few distinctive flavours is constantly threatening the high-quality cacao market.

Fortunately, there has been a surge in interest in fine-quality and single-estate beans from small chocolatiers and confectionery-makers. Reacting to the market in mass-produced goods, producers and consumers have begun giving more consideration generally to nutrition, flavour and provenance of food, which has boosted interest in single-estate products. Who would have thought that 20 years ago cloudy olive oil would end up being more expensive than clear olive oil? It’s just another indication of the way palates have changed.

Chocolate-making only began to change with the Industrial Revolution. Until then, it was a hugely labour-intensive process. In 1701, an English traveller called Ellis Veryard wrote a lengthy description of how chocolate was made in Spain. First, he said, the beans were dried over a gentle fire in an iron pan pierced with holes, while being stirred continuously. When the ‘kernels’ crumbled under pressure, but without turning to dust, they were placed in a box over the fire and turned every two hours.

The following day, the beans were gently rolled on a slab of stone, or metate, to remove the shells, and then winnowed, sieved and ground on the stone, which was now heated by a fire beneath it. Sugar was then added, along with cinnamon, which were mixed up and ground forcefully until incorporated in the cacao mass. The grinding continued, involving a huge amount of effort; vanilla, musk and achiote went into the mix. Eventually the cacao mass was formed into rolls, blocks or cakes and left to dry, then mixed with hot water and beaten with a stick to make a frothy drink. By that time the person doing all the work would definitely need a pick-me-up!

In the 1750s, Joseph Fry in Bristol began producing chocolate for the UK market, all of it handmade. It wasn’t until the end of the century that he patented a grinding machine powered by a James Watt steam engine. Even then, chocolate was still predominantly a drink. There was a trend for adding milk to it, but this didn’t mask the bitterness of the cacao and only added fat to what was already a fairly fatty concoction. More than 50% of the bean is made up of cacao butter, which would float to the surface when melted in hot water and make the cacao particles hard to disperse.

Things began to move forward in the nineteenth century, when food pioneers experimented with ways of extracting the cacao butter from the nibs, turning cacao into powder and removing the bitterness by treating it with heat or alkali. The crucial breakthrough came in 1828, when the Dutch chemist and chocolate-maker Conrad Van Houten built a hydraulic press that separated cacao butter from the liquor and left a dry solid that could be pulverized into powder, which he then treated with alkali salts to neutralize the acidity and make it easier to mix with water. This process became known as ‘Dutching’. Hot chocolate suddenly became twice as digestible and a lot easier toprepare. Dutching makes the chocolate darker – which dispels the idea that the darker the chocolate, the better it is, because it also strips out some of the goodness. Needless to say, I don’t Dutch. It’s a process used mainly by large manufacturers.

Now that cacao butter could be extracted from the beans, ‘eating’ chocolate became a possibility because the butter could be used to bind and coat a mix of milled sugar and cacao nibs to make a chocolate bar. Joseph Fry made this discovery in 1847 and went on to open the first chocolate bar factory; by now, roasting, winnowing and grinding had all become mechanized. In 1875, the Swiss chocolatier Daniel Peter launched a milk chocolate bar after his neighbour Henri Nestlé developed condensed milk. Too much water in chocolate adversely affects its shelf life and texture, so Nestlé’s dehydrated milk formula was key to the future of the milk chocolate bar.

But chocolate was still grittier and more bitter than it is today because there was one more important nineteenth-century innovation to come: a process known as conching, which involves heating and grinding the cacao solids to make them smoother and more integrated. Conching was apparently the result of a happy accident in the factory of Rodolphe Lindt, after one of Lindt’s employees left a grinding machine running all night. It’s not recorded whether the worker was sacked before he was promoted, or simply sacked so that Rodolphe Lindt could take the glory for a new invention. Either way, chocolate factories all over Europe were soon resounding to the deafening rhythm of row upon row of conching machines.

Conching is still a huge part of chocolate-making today; it’s just that the machines at the big processing factories now hold 20 tonnes (yes, 20 tonnes!) of soft-state cacao, instead of the Victorian standard of four tanks, each containing 125 kilos, which is the capacity of my beautiful antique conching machine at the factory in Devon. Which is where I am going now.

Viva Cacao,


Suggested further reading:

Willie’s Chocolate Bible by Willie Harcourt-Cooze

The Chocolate Tree, Allen M Young (University Press of Florida)

The True History of Chocolate, Sophie D. Coe and Michael D. Coe (Thames & Hudson)

The Science of Chocolate, Stephen T Beckett (RSC)

Chocolate – History, Culture and Heritage, edited by Louis Evan Grivetti, Howard-Yana Shapiro (Wiley)

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