Written by Robert Mac
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Chocolates have been prized for more than two thousand years, but not always as the sweet candies that we think of today. Originally, chocolate was a ceremonial drink of Central America: spicy, bitter, and frothy. When Spanish explorers like Cortez brought the interesting delicacy to Europe in the 1500s, it became an instant hit.

From Cacao to Chocolates: A Brief History of Chocolate

Aztecs discovered chocolate, but no one is sure exactly how. Deep in the jungles of Central America are cacao trees, and within their bean pods are the seeds that a curious Aztec once noticed and collected. These seeds were fermented, dried, roasted, and then crushed with cornmeal, chile peppers, other spices, and water to create the first version of chocolate.

This drink played an important role in the religious and social practices of the Aztecs and Mayans; it was considered a very revered item and was a favorite of royalty. Cacao plants show up prominently in artwork from the era, and their seeds were even traded as money. In some cultures, only upper classes were allowed to drink the special concoction.

Spaniards returning from the New World brought cacao back to Spain, where it once again became a court favorite; Spain guarded the secret recipe for nearly a century. By the 1700s, shops selling hot chocolate were popping up all over England, but it wasn't until 1847 that English candy makers discovered how to make solid chocolate, and nothing has been the same since. Until then, it was only available in liquid or powder--as a solid, it could now be eaten, as well as molded into many shapes.

Chocolates for the Masses

Once individual solid chocolates were manufactured, the industry took off. With the rise of international commerce and by exchanging different manufacturing techniques, chocolates became an affordable luxury for many people throughout the world. By some counts, it is the most popular flavor in the world, and definitely the American favorite.

Each country prefers their chocolate a little differently. The Americans like it on the sweeter side, while Mexican chocolate resembles the original version: it's less sweet and has cinnamon and other spices. Swiss and German chocolates are usually in the form of the chocolate bar, while Belgian chocolates may be the most precious: hand-crafted individual pieces filled with rich creams, fruits, nuts, liqueurs, and ganache, a combination of heavy cream, cocoa, and sugar.

What to Look for in Chocolate

Chocolate--like another highly regarded food, wine--is made in a complex process involving many steps, each of which is important to the final product. Some chocolatiers save time and money by cutting corners, making the chocolate less expensive, but lowering the quality, too. Look for all natural ingredients in your chocolate, and no artificial additives like color or flavor.

Another sign of quality is the amount of cocoa butter in your chocolates; cocoa butter is the natural fat and oil that, with cocoa solids, makes up the ground cacao seeds. Cheaper manufacturers use hydrogenated vegetable oils instead, robbing the chocolate of its natural taste, creaminess, and satisfying mouth-feel. A chocolate with only 10% cocoa by weight is not going to taste the same as a traditional chocolate with 30% or more cocoa.

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