Book review / Heaven in a bar (or cup)

THE TRUE HISTORY OF CHOCOLATE by Sophie D Coe & Michael D Coe Thames & Hudson pounds 16.95

The title of this richly detailed and illustrated book is adapted from The True History of the Conquest of Mexico, completed in 1572 by the conquistador Bernal Diaz del Castillo. He had at least been an eye- witness to the destruction of the Aztec, though modern readers might take his assertion of truth as a rhetorical flourishing of the handkerchief of style. The point that the Coes are making is that Europeans have tended to think of chocolate as something we invented, a treat marketed to arouse, replace and satisfy all kinds of anxious appetites, whereas in fact chocolate dates back to "the difficult and sometimes cloudy area of New World prehistory and ethnohistory" and for nine-tenths of its long history was drunk, not eaten. The history of chocolate turns out to be the history of economic exploitation and greed, with a vein of potent symbolism thrown in.

The Spanish invaders derived their earliest real knowledge of cacao, and the word itself, not from the Aztecs but from the Maya of the Yucatan Peninsula and neighbouring Central America. A thousand years before the Spaniards arrived, the Maya were writing this word on the magnificent pottery vessels used in the preparation of chocolate for their rulers and nobility. Chocolate was laden with religious associations, for it was as life-giving and powerful as blood. Used in ritual, the cacao pod was a sign for the human heart torn out in sacrifice. One precious liquid stood for another, much as Christians today use wine as a metaphor for Christ's blood. This kind of religious metaphor worked so powerfully that you can see how chocolate became invested with enormous significance.

These associations and resonances were lessened, if not completely lost, when chocolate was taken to the west and entered the European diet. It was credited with magical-medical properties even though Renaissance thinkers (and chefs) were supposedly moving away from ancient Arab ideas about the spiritual qualities inherent in foods towards something apparently more scientific. Perhaps because Spain, though massacring and exiling its Moorish population, yet retained powerful traces of their culture, it could welcome a "foreign" food and indeed enjoy digesting it.

Cacao beans, arriving first as gifts and bizarre souvenirs, began to be regularly shipped to Seville, a luxurious commodity like sugar. From Spain, the habit of drinking hot and sweetened chocolate spread to Italy and France and other parts of Europe. It was served in special one-handled pots, chocolatieres with wooden lids on which rested the molinillo, the wooden swizzle-stick used for beating up the thick scum to a fine froth.

The new drink evoked fascination, fear and myth-making. It was the Ecstasy of its day. Some people believed that drinking too much of it while pregnant produced chocolate-coloured babies. Others, like the enthusiastic Marquis de Sade, prescribed it to his female guests to provoke their "uterine rages" and tears before bedtime. Today, chocolate still comes garnished with fantasies of sinful sex and redemption by slimming. One recent ad which made me laugh showed a choc-loving woman's bottom, twin chocolate drops tightly moulded in brown silk. I'm sure that's the kind of thing the Marquis de Sade had in mind.

The book's final chapters track the spread of chocolate into mass culture and consumption, the creation of chocolate towns for the happy factory workers to dwell in. Again, the illustration and photographs make fascinating back-up to the text, refine its over-jolly tone with their information on marketing and money. The colour pictures are a joy. This is a delightful work.

Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Arts and Entertainment

Will Poulter will play the shape-shifting monsterfilm
Arts and Entertainment

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
    Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

    Flesh in Venice

    Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
    Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

    Juventus vs Real Madrid

    Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
    Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

    Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

    Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power