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  • Chocolatefood of the gods!

  • That's the Greek meaning of "theobroma cacao," the name of the tree that provides it.

  • For a plant which is notoriously difficult to cultivate, its takeover of global tastes is decidedly impressive.

  • Although not sold in Britain until the 1650s, its history goes back about 2,500 years before that, when it was almost certainly first domesticated in Central and South America.

  • Chocolate was an important part of early Central and South American culture.

  • The classic Mayans and their successors, including the Aztecs, consumed chocolate, usually as a drink, with water and perhaps chilli, or thickened with maize.

  • They also used the beans as currency, as well as using them in ceremonies from baptism to burial.

  • It was a rich person's beverage, imbued with health and spiritual properties, and inevitably when the Spanish invaded and colonised the areas where it was found, they adopted it for their own use.

  • At first, it was slow to spread.

  • When one Spanish ship transporting the beans was captured by the British in the 16th Century, they apparently threw the cargo overboard, thinking it was some form of dung.

  • However, as the Spanish, and then the French, and then the Italians, adapted the drink for their own tastes, they replaced the water with milk, and added sugar, and also started drinking it hot.

  • By the time the British cottoned on, it was a rich, thick concoction, both delicious and pleasingly exotic.

  • It was also healthy—17th Century medicine wasn't always certain what the new foods from the Americas would do to a Western disposition, but chocolate mainly got a resolute thumbs up.

  • Taken correctly, it was said to: "restore natural heat, generate pure blood, enliven the heart, and conserve the natural faculties."

  • It was also claimed to be an aphrodisiac, and one author wrote: "Twill make old women young and fresh, create new motions of the flesh, and cause them to long for you know what, if they but taste of chocolate."

  • The Marquis de Sade was said to be addicted to it, using it to fuel ferocious orgies.

  • No wonder it was popular!

  • At this time, chocolate was a drink.

  • But in the early 19th Century, manufacturers worked out how to remove much of the fat, called cocoa butter, which could then be added back carefully, to improve the texture, making it edible, though still very bitter.

  • The defatted chocolate became cocoa powder, which allowed the poor access to their own version of the food of the gods.

  • It was also used for cooking, though we had to wait a few more decades for chocolate cake.

  • It wasn't until the second half of the 19th Century that developments in milk processing, a sharp reduction in the price of sugar, and fierce competition between confectionery companies resulted in the first really popular eating chocolatemilk chocolate.

  • Sales exploded, and chocolate quickly came to mean the stuff you ate, not the stuff you drank.

  • Less than 50 years later, chocoholics could choose from an ever-increasing range of bars, boxes and novelty shapes.

  • Today chocolate is polarized, from cheap, milky, sugary stuff, to high-end black bars of joy.

  • The former, we're told, high in sugar and fat, is leading to an obese nation, but the latter, it's hinted, may actually be beneficial.

  • Early studies suggest small doses of very dark chocolate, rich in antioxidants, theobromine and caffeine may make us happier, healthier and less stressed.

  • Perhaps those 17th Century chocolate lovers were right after all.

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Chocolatefood of the gods!

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