Chocolate: A history of a long love affair

As the World Chocolate Masters competition in Paris nears, Vision takes a moment to reflect on a love affair enjoyed by many through the ages

Next month, an important, international, individual championship focused on chocolate will be held in Paris. The deciding contest of the World Chocolate Masters, 28-30 October, will see 20 finalists create six pieces including a chocolate showpiece, a moulded praline and a patisserie of the day; a jury of culinary professionals will then judge the creations.

The expo was formerly reserved for professionals in the food and chocolate industry exclusively, but as of this year the Salon du Chocolat is open to the public, eager to receive anyone with a love for chocolate. Perhaps this decision was down to rising demand. Chocolate's populartiy remains strong among those with a sweet tooth, and is rising in new markets. It's something we've noticed here too at Vision and over the next few weeks, we will shed light on a newfound appreciation for artisinal forms of the sweet and explore the history of this beloved treat.

With humble origins as a rich, bitter drink, the history of the cacao bean and its method of consumption span millennia. But the one constant it retains has been the extraordinary resonance it holds with us as a human race. From symbolising the betrothal of Mesoamericans and to curing endless ailments, to a being luxurious, handcrafted gift – the cacao bean has a great story to tell.

Chocolate's populartiy remains strong among those with a sweet tooth, and is rising in new markets

Modern day chocolate for us is synonymous with indulgence and luxury, and is regularly gifted as a present. Despite being grown in the tropics, we consume 3.8 million tonnes of cocoa beans per year - that’s 766 million chocolate bars every 12 months. Europe alone eats half of the world’s chocolate, and when teamed up with North America, they consume three quarters of the global supply. Meanwhile in China, chocolate sales should grow to $4.3bn by 2019, up nearly 60 percent from $2.7 billion in 2014 and driven by demand from the growing urban population, a senior Hershey officer recently forecast.

Starting back in 1900BCE, the journey of modern day chocolate begins when the Theobroma Cacao, the ‘Fruit of the Gods’, was first discovered in Mesoamerica. Documented as ‘bitter water’, it was poured from height between two vases and enjoyed as a hot, frothy beverage. It was drunk to symbolise the betrothal of man and wife as part of the traditional marriage rituals.

As we descend through the ages, the Mayans drew wall murals of themselves drinking it, and the Aztecs valued it so highly that they used it as a trading currency. Throughout Central and South America, the medicinal value of a chocolate drink remained constant. Treating everything from exhaustion to weak stomachs and curing weight loss, its famous healing powers have been passed down through generations.

Europe alone eats half of the world’s chocolate, and when teamed up with North America, they consume three quarters of the global supply

It was only when Christopher Columbus took his fourth trip to the Americas in 1502 that he first encountered the trading of cacao. The obvious value of this bean sparked an interest that led to new trade links with Spain. In the mid 19th century, a Dutch chemist invented a method of extracting the butter from the beans, and so, the first form of eating chocolate was created. As of 1847, England was mass-producing it, and in 1879 Switzerland, the milk chocolate recipe of modern consumption was born.

As a society, chocolate still has a certain prestige. Whether it is given as a gift, a romantic gesture, in celebration or to recognise religious events, chocolate still gives us the same joy as it did the Mayans on their wedding day.

Intricately designed nuggets like the French-Eastern hybrids at Forrey & Galland in Dubai, for instance, are a spectacle to behold. In London, the Rabot 1745 restaurant has an array of chocolate-infused meals from the cacao-dressed asparagus salad with soft boiled egg to a white chocolate potato mash. And in Paris, where the search to find the world's best chocolatier begins soon, the Jean-Paul Hévin sees chocolate shoes, guitars, and diamond rings adorn the dark wooden counters - while serving up an unusual combination of chocolate with potent cheese fillings. With a special nod to the current, thriving artisan chocolate scene across the globe, we are spoilt for choice with the types of chocolate on offer.

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