Intense, rich, smooth and dark. Funny how the language of chocolate is the same as many a Lonely Hearts fantasy. But then, more women prefer chocolate to sex – 52 per cent, some surveys suggest. It's more satisfying, they say, and you can enjoy it anywhere and at any time. And it still gives pleasure once it's gone soft. Ahem. But chocolate is not an aphrodisiac – at least, not chemically. That myth has never been scientifically proven. The closest proof came from a group of researchers in Italy, who found that women who regularly eat chocolate also have a better sex life. No doubt they also toss back red wine and race Ferraris.
It's not quality we like – it's volume. Britain is the third-biggest consumer of chocolate in the world, after Switzerland and Lichtenstein. The average Briton puts away 11 kg every year – that's about 1,150 Kit Kat fingers. But what we call chocolate would be sniffed at by the milkmaids of Triesenberg: what we know as "milk chocolate", which can have less than 35 per cent cocoa solids, is called "family milk chocolate" in the EU. Good to know the bureaucrats are on top of it.
The Victorians commercialised Easter. The first time anyone associated this time of year with chocolate was in 1873, when Cadbury launched its first Easter egg. It was small, solid and bitter. But eggs had always been associated with resurrections, even before Christianity: the Zoroastrians painted eggs to celebrate New Year. Then Christians gave up eating eggs during Lent, though chickens didn't stop laying, so it was omelettes a go-go by Easter. Today, children are the most heroic chocolate-munchers: they will gobble an average of 13 Easter eggs each this weekend, weighing a total of 2.6kg. That's the same as a newborn baby. Must be a resurrection metaphor in there somewhere.
1657 saw the opening of London's first chocolate house. The shop, in Bishopsgate, was an instant hit, and the fashion spread to other cities. Pepys wrote of taking his "morning draft in good Chocolatte" and dithering over whether have to it tall, grande or massimo.
We are a nation of chocolate factories. Although Britain is the biggest worldwide importer of retail chocolate, buying in £750bn a year, we also manufacture our fair share. From cottage factories across Wales to the great Bournville plant in Birmingham, the smell of cocoa beans has been one of the more poetic elements of our industrial landscape for almost 200 years. Roald Dahl was inspired by the great 1920s rivalry between Cadbury and Rowntree's to write Charlie and the Chocolate Factory: both firms would try to steal each other's recipes by sending spies posing as workers.
The microwave oven was discovered thanks to chocolate. In 1947, inventor Percy L Spencer was touring a factory when he suddenly felt the chocolate in his pocket melt. Realising he was standing by a device sending out waves, he had an idea...
Cheryl Cole's favourite chocolate is the Curly-Wurly. We know this as former Xtra Factor presenter Holly Willoughby once told Now! magazine, in a memorable scoop, though some might quibble over whether there are actually any cocoa solids in a Curly-Wurly. The Obamas have more refined tastes: their favourites are Smoked Salt Caramels, as supplied by Fran's Chocolates in Seattle. This is a caramel with a layer of sea salt enrobed in chocolate; apparently the salt gives "an unexpected boldness". We don't know what David Cameron likes, though it's not the Chocolate Orange. When in opposition, he once railed at WH Smith for promoting them half-price at the check-out, thus promoting obesity. Labour recently seized on the fact that they still do, and asked if Cameron can't crack the Chocolate Orange, what can he do?
Mini eggs are sold only at Easter and Christmas. They were first sold by Cadbury in 1967. They come in four colours: white, yellow, pink and blue, and are the most egg-like of any Easter egg, featuring a sugary shell and delicious inside. Alas, they have become a metaphor for British industry. For years they were a product of Keynsham, Somerset; as of 2010, they have been made in Poland.
Chocolate is good for you. Well, sort of. Obviously, if you breakfast on it, you may die young. But dark chocolate is a source of copper, which is lacking from most people's diets, and can help lower cholesterol and high-blood pressure. We're talking of traces here – not enough to melt down and sell to China. But still, 100g of dark chocolate can contain between 1mg and 1.8mg of copper, about the right daily intake. It's either that or chewing lightning conductors. k
Chocolate can kill. If you're a dog, that is. It contains theobromine, a mild stimulant – but even a small amount can prove fatal to dogs and horses. Cats, too, though they're less likely to eat chocolate, as they don't have "sweet" detectors. Theobromine stimulates the central nervous system and causes a slight increase in blood pressure. Animals can't metabolise it as quickly as humans, so it causes their hearts to race. It's been banned in racing. So no Easter eggs for the dogs, not even a bit. Which seems odd, given the rest of the time they go around licking each other's bottoms.
The term 'death by chocolate' is a marketing tool and has been given to hundreds of chocolate puddings, but many people have in fact died because of it. Pope Clement XIV was poisoned in 1774, and chocolate was rumoured to be the medium of its administration. In the 1800s, Christiana Edmunds would buy chocolate, lace it with strychnine, and return it to the shop. One child was killed and many fell very ill before she was caught. Several 20th-century murders involved poisoned chocolate; suspected terrorist Wadia Haddad is thought to have had his chocs poisoned by Mossad. Nobody is thought to have actually died from overindulgence.
The first cocoa beans were brought to Europe by Columbus. But he was much more interested in gold and other treasure. It was his fellow conqueror, Hernan Cortés, who got the chocolate trade going. He visited the Aztec emperor Montezuma in 1519, and was served chocolatl, a drink made of ground cocoa beans meaning "bitter water". Cortés added sugar, heated it up, and sent the recipe home. It was a hit. Then he slaughtered the Aztecs.
The most Ferrero Rochers anyone has ever eaten in a minute? Eight. Attempts to break the world record at last year's Ramsbottom Chocolate Festival came to nothing. They should invite some ambassadors.
Three billion chocolate bars were distributed to US soldiers during the Second World War. Hershey created the Ration D bar in 1937, and the firm still provides chocolate in military rations to boost morale.
What is it about the thick, gooey, sweet, unctuous stuff that reduces writers to incoherence? Well, not all writers. Some have spotted that, like sex, chocolate sells. Joanne Harris kept it simple with the title of her romantic novel, Chocolat, about a woman who brings sensuality to a stuffy little French town by opening a chocolate shop. It became a hit film staring Juliette Binoche. Like Water for Chocolate was Laura Esquivel's debut, about a woman who can only express herself when she cooks – the title is apparently a Spanish pun on sexual arousal. It became the highest-grossing Spanish-language film in the US. Then there's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Roald Dahl's 1964 work, which sold millions and spawned two mega box-office hits. There's also an opera, a stage play, and a ride at Alton Towers, where you get to shoot through the roof in Wonka's glass lift. And Sam Mendes is working on a musical, scheduled to open next year. Maybe it could be called Charlie and the Wonga Factory?
The dark side of chocolate: two-thirds comes from west Africa, where child labour is rife. Cacao can only grow in hot, wet climates, which tend to be where the world's poorest live, within 20 degrees either side of the equator. Harvesting techniques have barely changed since Aztec days: workers use knives to hack the ripe pods from trees, careful not to damage the bark. Then they split the pods by whacking them with mallets, and scrape out the beans and sticky pulp. The good news is that cacao provides a livelihood for 50 million people worldwide. The bad news is that many are exploited, which is why the Fairtrade label was launched.
Luxury chocolatiers have grand names. But they are not always what they seem. Bendicks, for instance, is an amalgamation of its founders' names: Oscar Benson and Colonel "Bertie" Dickson. And Prestat was named after founder Antoine Dufour's nephew; he couldn't use his own name, as he was still working for a rival.
Chocolate is a force for good. No, really. In the 19th century, Quaker brothers Richard and George Cadbury (right) created a highly profitable factory, and used the proceeds to build Bournville, a suburban utopia on the south side of Birmingham. Like many philanthropists, they had grand ideas of improving the workers' lot through fresh air and plenty of exercise. So starting with 120 acres in 1893, they built a model village of spacious half-timbered cottages, arranged round croquet lawns and tennis courts, and soon everyone wanted to live there. By 1900 it had grown to cover 330 acres. Even today it's still a sought-after address: in 2003, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found it was one of the nicest places to live in England. Which is ironic, given Joseph Rowntree was Cadbury's rival.
The very finest chocolate comes from Venezuela. It's called Criollo, and is made from a special cocoa bean that boasts a delicate, bitter-free taste. It represents less than 10 per cent of the world's production, though the area around Chuao on Venezuela's north coast has become a mini-mecca for serious chocaholics. Day-trippers flock to see the red-burnt cocoa drying in the sun, and to sample the bean in its many permutations: as a drink, ice-cream or liqueur. You'll find Chuao just north of El Paraiso, though you could easily confuse the two.