The True History of Chocolate by Sophie D. CoeAs with the only other Coe book Ive read so far, I give this book 5 stars for the information, 3 stars for the writing (hence, 4 star average).
Learning about chocolate is the next best thing to actually eating chocolate, and this book certainly gives the reader many tasty tidbits on which to nibble. Starting with a basic description of the trees themselves (how and where they grow, the different types) and what happens to the beans to get a usable product (fermentation, roasting, etc.), the narrative moves next to the history of the plant. Origins of its cultivation, how it spread to certain areas and either thrived or died are covered, along with how the cultivators used the end products and to what purpose. Then the Europeans enter the picture, resulting in the further spread of chocolate for quite some time, though not reaching modern proportions until sugar, mass production, and milk come together some 200 years later.
This is just a thumbnail sketch of what is covered in detail in the book, all fascinating to learn if frustrating to read at times. Coe has all the facts here but his style could use some polishing. The text can be plodding at times when there are too many names or dates bandied about, making it come off more as disorganized, rather than informative, rambling (and I really like informative rambling). As well, his opinions make their way into the text, sometimes subtle, sometime not, but its not too distracting.
Like I say in my other Coe book review, its a rewarding read if you dont mind his sometimes frustrating style of writing. This is my second Coe book, but I can still say: it wont be my last.
A True History of Chocolate: Cacao in Northwest Mesoamerica and the U.S. Southwest (AD 900-1450)
A Brief History of Chocolate
The history of chocolate can be traced to the ancient Mayans, and even earlier to the ancient Olmecs of southern Mexico. The word chocolate may conjure up images of sweet candy bars and luscious truffles, but the chocolate of today is little like the chocolate of the past. Throughout much of history, chocolate was a revered but bitter beverage, not a sweet, edible treat. Chocolate is made from the fruit of cacao trees, which are native to Central and South America. The fruits are called pods and each pod contains around 40 cacao beans.
The story of chocolate begins with cocoa trees that grew wild in the tropical rainforests of the Amazon basin and other areas in Central and South America for thousands of years. The Maya Indians and the Aztecs recognised the value of cocoa beans - both as an ingredient for their special 'chocolate' drink and as currency - for hundreds of years before cocoa was brought to Europe. Christopher Columbus is said to have brought the first cocoa beans back to Europe from his fourth visit to the 'New World' between and However far more exciting treasures on board his galleons meant the humble cocoa beans were ignored. He brought cocoa beans back to Spain in and very gradually, the custom of drinking the chocolate spread across Europe, reaching England in the s.
During the time of the Aztecs, cocoa was mainly used as a beverage. Wines and drinks were made from white pulp around the seeds of the cocoa pod. The beans themselves were used to make hot or cold chocolate drinks. Both the Maya and the Aztec secular drinks used roasted cocoa beans, a foaming agent sugir , toasted corn and water. Cocoa beans were also used as a currency and as a tribute tax from peoples ruled by Aztecs. The oily layer floating in the chocolate drink cocoa butter was used to protect the skin against the sun. For the Aztecs cocoa had a religious significance.
Chocolate History Firms Up
Preparing drinking chocolate near Oaxaca, Mexico
A tree bearing unusual fruit with vibrant colors produced seeds so valuable that it was considered to be a gift from the gods. It was the cacao tree, known to the Aztecs as Xocatl. Aztec people were not the first to discover and cultivate this magical fruit. The credit for that belongs to earlier Mesoamerican civilizations. But, their empire was dominant and their passion for the cacao bean was unprecedented. The value of chocolate as a commodity reached new heights under the Aztec Empire. Cacao tradition was alive and well with the Aztecs.