The pursuit proved a long one, but the English buccaneers finally bore down upon the Spaniards, and making a sharp turn the two vessels were locked together with a deafening crash of timber. Grappling irons were thrown, steel clashed against steel, blasts of flame and smoke erupted amidst cries and shrieks. Then silence and laments. The victorious assailants were after only one thing: the ship's precious cargo. It was then that they realised the nature of the odd "treasure", what appeared to be dark sheep dung. Why on earth would a vessel transport such vile stuff? Disappointed, exasperated and indignant the buccaneers set fire to the vessel and sailed away. This was in 1579. In the same period other English and Dutch buccaneers boarded Spanish vessels only to find the same strange cargo, which either they set fire to or else threw into the sea. What were the Spanish doing with all this rubbish?
In the tropical areas of America a special tree grew. Dating back to ancient times, it had 10 to 15 cm - long oval pods like small melons, greenish-yellowish in colour which ripened into a brownish-reddish hue. Their rind enclosed a clear, sweet gelatinous and mucilaginous pulp that was quite tempting, if also slightly acidic, enjoyed by many animals in the forest. Over three thousand years before Columbus the natives had already been well acquainted with this tree and pulp. It is likey that for a long time they merely extracted it from the pod when picked. Subsequently, by chance they discovered that if the pods were fermented, they could obtain a beer-like beverage. The almond-shaped bitter seeds contained within the pods were thrown away.
Excavations of several Olmec ancient settlements between southern Mexico and Honduras yielded terracotta vessels for liquids (vases, bottles, bowls and cups) dating back to a period between 1800 and 1000 BC. Some of these vessels bear traces of theobromine, an alkaloid, which is associated with the tree with extremely bitter beans that the Olmecs called kakawa. Thus, the vessels most probably contained kakawa, although further information is scarce.
It is uncertain whether the Olmecs just gathered the pods in the rainforests, or else actually started to grow the tree itself, and above all whether they used the vessels to produce, store, and drink only beer or another product. However, it is clear that at a certain point a series of fortuituos events and trials led to the processing of the bitter beans that were no longer thrown away, but it is uncertain whether it was the Olmecs themselves or a later ethnic group. Few traces of the Olmecs have been found after circa 400 AD, to merge with many other ethnic communities that in Mesoamerica succeeded each other throughout centuries of wars, migration and invasions. The little or so that the Olmecs knew about cocoa was handed down, gradually developing and improving as time went by, although how and when is almost impossible to say, up to the emergence of the Maya peoples out of that kaleidoscope of civilisations.
The Maya peoples already had a substantial knowledge of processing cocoa beans. Evidence suggests that during the Classic period (circa 300 AD) they grew cocoa trees, extracted the beans, which were then fermented, dried and roasted. Subsequently, the beans were ground into a paste to which hot water and spices were added, resulting in a thick, frothy beverage. It was a special, rare substance only drunk by people of high rank and served on important occasions. It was called kakaw uhanal, (food of the gods) and was alleged to have religious and medical properties, just as smoke from certain leaves was much appreciated in that country. Unrivalled by production in northern territories, tobacco in the southern regions of the continent peacefully coexisted with cocoa. In Mayan culture, both substances were associated with the same dark-skinned divinity who protected traders.
Cocoa beans were so precious that they were used as currency to buy products, objects and services. There were even almond-shaped counterfeit beans, made out of other materials. The beans were carried on the backs of traders who travelled long distances, thereby disseminating the thick beverage and making it highly popular. They were prepared in various ways according to the region, tastes, and customs: chili pepper, cinnamon, pepper, moss and vanilla were the ingredients most commonly added. Later, when another civilisation emerged - the Aztecs - cornmeal was also mixed into the beverage. According to some sources, the drink was savoured at the end of a banquet while smoking tobacco, and came to be known as chocolatl.
Columbus became acquainted with chocolate during his fourth and final voyage in 1502, but he found it quite unpleasant. Cortez was also unimpressed by the drink in 1519, but as it was revered at the court of Montezuma, he could see its potential. The cocoa bean gradually gained popularity among the Spanish, and was then introduced among the upper classes in Spain. However, for a long time cocoa was largely unknown outside these circles. This explains the odd reaction of the English and Dutch buccaneers to the discovery of the beans. There was something not quite right about the food of the gods.
Cocoa beans were - and are - extremely bitter. So was the special drink of the Mayas and Aztecs. Moreover, it was highly fatty. Girolamo Benzoni may have been exaggerating when he described the drink in his "Historia del mondo nuovo" (1565) as "a beverage fit for pigs and not for men", but it is true that this ceremonial and therapeutic drink was far from the hot cup of chocolate we know today, just as the strong tobacco used by the Native Americans in the 1500s was so different from the blends we are familiar with nowadays.
Uninterested in the spiritual and symbolic value of the "Indian potion", the Spanish considered it merely an exotic product that was foreign to their palates. Around the middle of the seventeenth century it was probably the nuns in a convent in Oaxaca in Messico who first modified the recipe by substituting pepper and chili pepper with honey, cinnamon and above all with sugar cane. The latter was a relatively new "spice" for Europe that had been introduced in the American West Indies a few decades previously. Soon this new beverage was enjoyed in convents, at court, and in the homes of the nobility in Mexico.
Chocolate was still a complicated drink, despite all these additions. However, it was much sought after, being a prestigious and costly novelty, and thought to possess interesting medical properties. Moreover, it was thought to be aphrodisiacal and thus not recommended for monks. Nevertheless, in 1569 Pope Pius V granted permission to drink this even on fasting days, as it was a liquid. This helped to make the drink more popular, but it was still slow to catch on. Spain and its colonies were the first to discover the beverage, and then it was gradually adopted in other southen Catholic European countries, brought by travellers or Spanish princesses who were betrothed to foreign monarchs: in Florence in 1606, in France in 1615, Holland in 1621, Belgium in 1635, Germany in 1641, England around 1650, and in the USA in 1712. While it was gradually becoming more popular, various ways to enhance the flavour were tried, such as adding vanilla, nutmeg, cloves, chili pepper, anis, Rose of Alexandria, almonds and hazlenuts. Based on Aztec customs, various types of flour were also added to thicken it and also to dilute the mass of cocoa butter which was impossible to remove. In addition, milk and even wine went into the mixture. Thus, little by little European palates became accustomed to that strange, fatty, inebriating potion from afar. Gradually the medical attributes were reduced to be replaced by the enjoyment of its sweet sensations. Its popularityspread from the courts and nobility to the wealthy upper classes, and while new cocoa plantations were being established in tropical parts of the world the price of cocoa decreased, although only slightly.
In effect, tobacco had equally lost all its spiritual and symbolic qualities as soon as it had arrived in Europe, and it had also been attributed all kinds of medical prperties until the pleasure of simply smoking gained popolarity. Similarly, the sixteenth century had been an incubation period during which it was cautious experiments were made. Subsequently, it gained popularity at a fast pace amongst all social classes, unlike chocolate, which was often taken with tobacco only in more affluent circles in private houses or elegant public places such as the Case del Caffé in Venice or the renowned Coffee Houses in London. However, while tobacco's identity had already become firmly established, chocolate was still to find its own. From the 1650s the "food of the gods" attempted to rid itself of its liquid state by being offered in the guise of sorbets, cakes, and bars. The range was limited and not without some flaws (apart from a few exceptions) but nevertheless, nothing like this had ever been seen previously. In the early 1700s machines were introduced to simplify production and supplies of cocoa and sugar were easier to obtain. Thus, production and consumption increased rapidly and progress was made in chocolate production techniques. However, something was still lacking to make it perfect, or rather there was an ingredient that was in excess.
The chocolate was nutritious, but highly indigestible, due to the high percentage of fat. Several attempts were made to improve this by reducing the fat content, but the results were disappointing. A breakthrough occurred when Casparus van Houten opened a small factory in Amsterdam in 1815 and focused on the problem of reducing the fat. His young son, Coenraad, assisted him in his experiments to find a solution to this problem, using new technology introduced by the Industrial Revolution. Eventually, in 1828 they patented a powerful hydraulic press which would be able to press the fat (cocoa butter) out of the roasted cocoa beans. The result was a solid mass that was easy to grind into powder and was more soluble in water or milk. Subsequently, Coenraad van Houten improved the method further by adding alkaline salts to the powder to make it even more soluble, remove acidity, and darken it.
From the first attempts by the nuns in Oaxaca to treat the beans to the successful process introduced by van Houten in his factory in Amsterdam, chocolate had finally found its identity. Now sugar could be mixed into the powder and a limited quantity of cocoa butter could be added, in order to obtain a paste that when heated could be poured into moulds. These were the first chocolate bars as we know them today, although the chocolate was rather hard and had to be nibbled. Then in 1879 a Swiss chocolate manufacturer invented conching. This process involved blending the chocolate thoroughly for a long time while maintaining the right temperature. This meant that the resulting mass was perfectly blended, the particles of chocolate were evenly distributed, and the aroma was enhanced. The best part was that now chocolate was no longer hard when melted and solidified, but melted in the mouth.
This all happened a few centuries ago. Since then progress has been made at an amazing rate. Today an infinite number of varieties of chocolate are manufactured and sold by both giant multinational corporations as well as by refined artisans. When we taste it we should remember the Mayans and how they ground the beans by crushing them with a stone, the nuns that experimented with different blends, and the nineteenth-century pioneers who discovered new processes to refine and improve its taste, so that it became the food that now even the gods envy us. At the end of a banquet we can do as the Aztecs did, when they acompanied hot chocolate with good tobacco.
This is a wonderful challenge, to be taken up with passion and concentration. Amongst the various possible combinations we recommend one where quality dark chocolate goes extremely well with a tobacco that is a "relative" of chocolate.
Samuel Gawith's Chocolate Flake is a mixture of Virginia, Burley and Cypriot Latakia flavoured with chocolate. When taken out of the tin, the aroma is strong (the Latakia) with a hint of cocoa. The fine yellow-streaked dark brown strips of tobacco are quite moist to the touch when flaking or just folding the strips into the bowl. Once the pipe is lit, the pronounced rich flavour of Virginia is perceived with the pleasant undertones of dark chocolate, a prelude to the savouring of a chocolate bar at the end of our smoke.
Gran Cacao 82% is one of the better known products manufactured by Slitti of Monsummano Terme, one of the most interesting artisanal chocolate manufactures in Italy. The fruit of many years of experience in chocolate making, it is dark, intensely bitter that reflects and enhances the experience of the Chocolate Flake. When we pick up our pipe again for a second smoke (after having first drunk a glass of water to "reset" our tastebuds), the dark chocolate note of Gran Cacao 82% will linger until the next taste.