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Sensual, Decadent Chocolate

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Chocolate in San Miguel has a long and twisted history arriving today at some of the best tasting shops in town.

Since 450BC the Aztecs believed that cacao seeds were the gift of Quetzalcoatl, the god of wisdom, and the seeds once had so much value that they were used as a form of currency.  One seed bought you an avocado.  One hundred seeds bought you a slave.

Originally prepared only as a drink, chocolate was served as a bitter beverage. Seeds were fermented, sun-dried and ground into a liquor of dark chocolate mixed with chili peppers and honey. It was believed to be an aphrodisiac giving the drinker strength and consumed by pre-Hispanic royalty and favored soldiers.

Spanish conquistadorHernán Cortés, was the first European to encounter chocolate when he observed the court of Montezuma in 1519.  After the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs, chocolate was imported to Europe by 1620.

The Jesuits, the most business-savvy clergy, formed plantations to grow and ship cacao to European royalty and popes.    By the 1900s that changed as companies like Lindt and Hershey added milk and came out with the modern form of the mass produced chocolate bar.

In fact, it was Mr. Hershey’s insistence on using scraps of chocolate from forming chocolate bars into Hershey kisses, the first industrial produced chocolate affordable to the masses. Every well received high school report card was rewarded with a big of Hershey kisses from the local Hershey priest.

Chocolate transformed from an indulgence of the rich to a heavily advertised healthy treat for the masses.  Chocolate was advertised as so healthy and essential it was included in US soldiers’ rations during wars.

The word chocolate comes from the Nahuatl word Xocolātl, and entered the English language from the similar sounding Spanish word.  Cacao means “the drink or food of the gods”.

Like cotton, cocoa is labor-intensive with slaves imported from Africa to central and South America to work on plantations.  Cocoa only grows by the Equator, so, once slavery was banned in the Americas, instead of importing slaves from Africa, plantations moved to Africa using slave and child labor which still happens today.  Seventy percent of the world’s cacao comes from the Ivory Coast and Ghana.

My favorite chocolate shop in town is Chocolates Johfrej on the street called Jesus just off the jardin.  The word, Johfrej, was formed from combining the founder’s grandchildren’s initials, in much the same way our glass factory is called Guajuye.

That’s Nana Elvira in the photo’s close-up enjoying the then popular marcel wave in her, and her contemporaries’, hair much like the Keep Young and Beautiful hit song advised

Since 1920 the tradition of making truffles, creams, and pralines has been passed on through generations with cocoa still originating from southern Mexico.  Today the store is run by the grandson, Raul, a handsome and friendly lad.  Well, not at first.  Raul didn’t warm up to me until one I mentioned the chocolates were for the cloistered nuns my then teen daughter volunteered for.  With that, a world of warmth began with Raul gifting me with a free chocolate with every purchase.  My favorites are the dark chocolate orange and the white chocolate covered cranberries.  Both are bliss!

It was from Raul I learned the importance of location.  He moved the shop off the jardin for a cheaper rent of Jesus.  However, every few steps away from the jardin leads to a serious decrease in sales for any retail establishment

I’ve a childhood pal, Cheryl, who now works at the luxurious Hotel Hershey’s spa.  Cheryl is well versed in chocolate’s curative properties.  For example, cocoa dilates the arteries in our kidneys, regulating the supply of oxygen to internal organs.  Covering the whole body with chocolate brings the skin softness, reduces spots, intensely moisturizes and increases the production of collagen to maintain a youthful glow.  Massages and wraps of cocoa attack cellulite and flaccidity by burning accumulated fat.  Chocolate brings shine and softness to hair while simultaneously improving blood circulation to the scalp.

Cheryl tries so hard to convince me to take a chocolate bath at the spa, but despite her salesmanship and cocoa still being a gift from the gods, the idea makes me throw up a little in my mouth.  I’m way too hirsute to bathe in something I’d rather consume.

The best-received gifts I ever brought back from Hershey were pens that smelled like chocolate and they truly did.  Probably because the smell and taste of chocolate is also a natural antidepressant, giving a feeling of tranquility and joy when consumed in moderation, though who can consume chocolate in moderation?  Certainly not during the upcoming World Chocolate Day on July 7th!

Chocolate has a long history enveloped in an aura of something sensual, decadent and forbidden though not everything about chocolate’s history, or current events, is sweet.

Joseph Toone

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