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.

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