The weather outside may be frightful, what with climate change exacting vengeance all across the globe. Rainier rainy seasons, colder cold snaps, stormier storms, hotter heat waves: You name it, Mother Nature’s going haywire with it. We could – at this point – spend the next 1,410 words talking about our responsibility and role in causing and reversing this unwanted phenomenon. We could, but we won’t. Am not quite in the zone for such seriousness, at the moment. Except perhaps to say this: It IS serious. It IS weighty. And we MUST do what we can to change it.
Instead, let us talk of matters more light-hearted in nature. The delightful “pick-me-ups” in the face of frightful, depressing weather: A good book. A comfy couch. A good book read on a comfy couch. Delightful, but not quite bliss until you add…wait for it…a cup of rich, piping-hot, liquid joy: HOT CHOCOLATE. This is the trifecta that just-about guarantees hours happily wiled-away (grammar geek alert: This means the same as “to while-away”) indoors as the psychotic weather rages on.
Before hot chocolate became the creature comfort drink of choice for curling up indoors during a spell of bad weather, or a as a frigid day treat for pink-cheeked children, it was a drink of the gods.
History credits the earliest cultivation of cacao to ancient Mesoamerica, by the Olmec, living in southern Mexico. In those days, cacao served a religious, financial, and nutritional purpose.
Xocolātl, the drink that was made with cacao, was considered sacred – even magical – by the Mesoamericans. It was used during initiation ceremonies, funerals, and marriages. It was also consumed for added virility and strength. If you ask me, this gives credence to a belief many of us have steadfastly held: Chocolate is spiritual in essence, and we are validated for worshipping at its altar.
Cacao beans were also used as currency (the precursor to today’s chocolate coins, perhaps?) during those days. Hence, eating or drinking chocolate was like scarfing or gulping down your cash, and was a luxury mainly enjoyed by the elite.
Cacao was cultivated and consumed by the Olmecs and Mayans, but is most famously associated with the Aztec civilization. The Olmec passed the chocolate drink on to the Maya civilization, which in turn passed it on to the Aztecs.
It is recorded in the annals of history that legendary Aztec leader Montezuma II demanded cacao beans from conquered peoples as tribute, and that he – in a show of power and opulence – drank goblet after goblet of chocolate every day. It is also of curiosity to note that the Aztecs commonly drank it as a cold beverage, and often mixed wine or chili peppers into it.
The Aztecs, like the Mesoamericans, valued chocolate as a sacred liquid; much like blood, which was also deemed sacred. Cacao seeds were used in their religious ceremonies as a representation of the human heart. The connection between blood and chocolate was especially strong for warriors, and it was served at their solemn initiation ceremonies.
Apart from his own chocolate indulgence, the only other people Montezuma allowed to drink the beverage were those who served in a military capacity, that they would stay strong and alert; qualities which they believed were enhanced by chocolate consumption.
By way of a side note, Montezuma was not the only who incorporated hot chocolate in the military. During the Revolutionary War, medics gave the beverage to wounded, sick or tired soldiers to speed-up the process of recovery. Hot chocolate was also included in military rations given to soldiers, so that they could make the drink themselves. Again, proving what I have long believed: Chocolate is healing.
Years later, Spanish explorer Hernán Cortés conquered the Aztecs, and brought the popular drink to Spain, where it was (not surprisingly) a big hit, spreading throughout Europe and, eventually, the world.
Hot Chocolate versus Hot Cocoa?
Whereas most of us think that hot chocolate and hot cocoa are the same thing, technically, they are not. Chocolate starts off as cacao seeds (most commonly known as cocoa beans) from pods on the bark of the Theobroma cacao tree. After a process of fermenting, drying, and roasting the seeds, the shells are removed, leaving the cacao nibs. The nibs are then crushed into a thick paste (called chocolate liquor, which despite the name, contains no alcohol), which is made up of cocoa solids and cocoa butter. The ancient peoples of Mesoamerica used to mix this paste with water to make the highly regarded drink.
Chocolate was made this way and consumed almost entirely as a drink for many years until 1828, when Dutch chemist Coenraad Johannes van Houten developed a process to separate most of the fat — the cocoa butter — from the chocolate liquor, turning the mixture into a desiccated cake, which was then pulverized into cocoa powder. In this process known as “Dutching”, the nibs are treated with alkaline salts to neutralize their acidity, mellow the flavor, and improve the cocoas’ solubility in warm water. Hence, the powder known as “Dutch cocoa.” “Natural cocoa” does not undergo the Dutching process.
From here, quality solid chocolate is made by re-adding cocoa butter to the chocolate liquor, together ith other ingredients like sugar, vanilla, and milk, and whatever flavours, nuts, etcetera, go into the particular chocolate.
To get our terms straight (and to exponentially increase your chocolate geek quotient): Hot cocoa is made with cocoa powder, be it Dutch or natural, whereas hot chocolate is made with little pieces (such as choco chips) or shavings of solid chocolate. Yummy however way you prefer to have it.
Good AND good for you? My Goodness!
Now here’s a hard and fast fact that I have definitely known and have chosen to believe, 100% since the dawn of time: Chocolate is not only good, it is good FOR you. Contrary to what many may ever so erroneously think, real chocolate is not “junk food.”
Research shows that real chocolate (not the stuff that says “chocolate flavoured”, or with “added chocolate”) is a highly complex substance, made up of 400-500 different compounds, many of which contain mind and body boosting benefits:
Caffeine – a stimulant, which is present in small amounts, varying according to the type and quantity of chocolate ingredients.
Theobromine – another kind of mild stimulant, from which chocolate gets most of its kick. Theobromine energizes without greatly activating the central nervous system like caffeine does. It is known to help with mood, dilate blood vessels, lower blood pressure, relax the smooth muscles of the bronchi in the lungs (hence, it is also the active ingredient in asthma medications), and can also be used to treat coughs.
Tryptophan – which is responsible for activating serotonin – your body’s “feel-good” neurotransmitter – in the brain.
Phenylethylamine – works like an amphetamines in that it releases norepinephrine, responsible for heightened excitement, alertness, and decision-making abilities. It also activates dopamine, which releases endorphins (natural painkillers) and enhances mood.
Flavonoids – these antioxidants improve blood flow to the heart and brain, prevent clots, improve cardiac health, and have anti-inflammatory properties.
Chocolate has also been long-held as possessing aphrodisiacal qualities.
I don’t know about you, but all this talk of hot chocolate has left me with a serious hankering for a nice big cup of healthful happiness. And since I’ve reached my word-count limit, it’s off to the kitchen I go (grabbing some marshmallows, along the way). Cheers to chocolate!
Check out this internet favorite recipe for hot chocolate:
Drew’s World Famous Triple Rush Hot Chocolate
- 1/2 cup semisweet chocolate chips
- 1/2 cup milk
- 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1 dash hot chili powder
- 1 teaspoon instant coffee granules
- 1/2 cup cold milk
Combine the chocolate chips and milk in a glass or plastic dish, and microwave on high, stirring every 20 to 30 seconds, until melted and smooth. Mix in the coffee, cinnamon, and hot chili powder until the instant coffee has dissolved. Stir in the cold milk. Strain into 2 mugs. Thin with additional milk, if desired.