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Who doesn’t love chocolate?

I am one of those people who can’t imagine life without chocolate. In fact, I am sure it was the first ingredient in my baby bottle, all those many years ago, and that is why Christmas is one of my favourite times of the year… you can’t go anywhere without finding chocolate.

I understand we take this staple for granted and regularly munch on it without giving much thought to anything other than its taste. The other day, while delectably devouring a delicious dollop of the finest chocolate available (purchased locally, I might add), I couldn’t help but wonder where this yummy treat originated.

I had assumed that chocolate has been around since the beginning of time, and I’m sure there were a couple of chocolate bars on the ark, but alas, that is not the case. First of all, it is important to note that there are basically two types of chocolate: dark (also known as pure) and light or milk. Yes, I know there is white chocolate, but it really has little or no chocolate in it.

Personally I am a lover of the darkest, bittersweet available, but many people enjoy milk chocolate, and it is the invention of the latter that got me to thinking about the history of this delicious treat. Chocolate, in its pure form (dark or semi-sweet) was invented as far back as 2,000 BCE (Before Common Era, previously referred to as Before Christ). Residue of chocolate was found in Mexican artifacts dating back to that time, but it was mostly used as a drink.

It wasn’t until 1502 that the Europeans embraced the goodness of this yummy treat, when Columbus, on his fourth voyage to the Americas, seized a canoe filled with cocoa beans and brought them to Europe. It was bitter and did not catch on. People couldn’t understand why the South American natives loved the stuff. It took about a hundred years until a group of Friars added honey to the bitter liquid, making it sweeter and much tastier. Eventually chocolate made its way from Spain to Austria, where it was decreed by the Pope of the day that eating chocolate was not considered a breach of the religious fast. That was enough to get good Catholics to try the new delicacy.

The process of making chocolate proved to be a slow one, and the English, Dutch, and French were the first to establish plantations. Cacao production was often the work of low wage labourers and African slaves. Mills built to speed up production were horse-drawn and slow, except in the Netherlands where wind power was used. Chocolate would remain a treat for the elite and the wealthy until the arrival of the Industrial Revolution, which brought steam-powered engines to accelerate the process.

In 1815 a Dutch chemist, Coenraad Van Houte introduced alkaline salts to chocolate, which reduced its bitterness. Ten years later he created a press to remove about half the natural fat (cocoa butter), making it cheaper to produce. I was stunned to find there was no such thing as milk chocolate until the late 1800s, mainly because adding milk to chocolate did not produce the proper consistency required to make the end product.

It was, in fact, the invention of powdered milk in 1875, by none other than Henri Nestlé (and I thought his first name was ‘Quick’), that someone decided to add his invention to chocolate, creating the milk chocolate of today. Interestingly enough, both Van Houte and Nestlé are still synonymous with chocolate today. Thank goodness for their ingenuity, otherwise I would probably be treating myself to a handful of sauerkraut or broccoli as a yummy treat… Really?

Jonathan van Bilsen is a television host, award-winning photographer, published author, columnist and keynote speaker. Watch his show, ‘Jonathan van Bilsen’s photosNtravel’, on Rogers TV, the Standard Website or YouTube.

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