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A drink or confection derived from the beans of the cocoa tree (theobroma cacao).
Chocolate was first consumed in Europe as a drink, and as cacao refused to grow successfully on this side of the Atlantic, Spain and Portugal had a monopoly for well over 100 years, as they held most of the growing lands.
In Mexico, or more likely what is now Belize - where it probably originated - this drink was prepared by roasting the beans, then grinding them to a paste with water (and sometimes powdered flowers). Little cakes of this paste would be shaken up with water and then gulped down in one swig.
In the Spain of the 1630's this preparation had become an even more complex operation - the ground beans being mixed with chilis, aniseed, cinnamon, sugar and sometimes powdered roses before being diluted.
This paste was exported to Italy and the Netherlands, but it was not until 1650 that drinking chocolate became the vogue in Oxford - the first chocolate house opening in London in 1657.
For almost 300 years after its introduction to Europe chocolate was thought of only as a drink; and even then it was first mixed with wine, long before milk became an acceptable alternative!
The British, and many of the Swiss, prefer milk chocolate to plain, but the very milky British product is deemed 'sickly', by most Europeans. The French prefer dark chocolate, low in sugar; while Americans go for milky, vanilla-ish, sugary blends.
World production is about 2.5 million tonnes of raw cocoa a year - but although there are many types, the origin of the bean is seldom listed, as it would be for the coffee bean or grape.
Cocoa beans form in pods on trees which flourish, either side of the equator, across South and Central America, in West Africa, Malaysia, India and on islands in the Caribbean, Pacific and Indian oceans.
Such beans are either forastero types - the workaday cocoas of basic 'chocolate' attribute which abound in West Africa, Brazil and Malaysia, or one of the 'fine flavour' varieties called criollo and trinitario.
The latter 'premium cocoas' grow on low-yielding trees in Equador and Colombia, the West Indies, Madagascar, Java, Sri Lanka and elsewhere, have concentrated and highly individual characters, fetch sums up to double the norm for West African beans and now comprise less than eight per cent of the world's total production.
British chocolate manufacturers prefer Ghanaian and Nigerian forasteros to the huge crop of the same bean from the neighbouring Ivory Coast - which they regard as 'improperly-handled'. But the French concentrate on the latter, rejecting any notion of the beans deficiency. The Germans and Dutch tend to use Malaysian beans.
Both the British and French 'pooh-pooh' Brazilian forasteros, which are mainly taken by the U.S.A.
All professionals agree that to get the most from a cocoa crop of whatever type, handling of the 'fruit' is crucial. Beans must be harvested precisely when ripe, fully fermented to develop prospective flavours and reduce acidity and bitterness, dried sufficiently - by natural sunlight - to inhibit the growth of mould. The best forasteros receive that kind of attention, as do the much smaller number of superior 'fine flavour' criollos and trinitarios.
Top chocolate producers - such as Valrhona - nurture the beans as a top wine producer would a fine Médoc. The company prefers beans from Ecuador, largely because of the soil conditions - un goût de terroir - which has nourished the tree. They also use chocolate from Grenada in the Caribbean and Javan crillos.
For top-class chocolate individual bean-types are often listed, and 60-70% cocoa solid figures are the norm. See "Carob (Ceratonia siliqua)"; "Chocolate cravings"; "Chocolate and health"; "Chocolate; Forasteros Production figures (latest available)"; "Chocolate; World Production of 'Premium Cocoas'"