Most anthropologists trace the use of cacao products to South America over 5,000 years ago.
The cacao tree (“cocoa” is a variant of “cacao”) is an equatorial plant with ovoid pods that grow directly from the trunk. The cacao beans are the seeds that grow inside the pod. After harvesting, the beans are fermented for up to a week to develop their flavors, and dried.
The dried beans are then roasted and cracked to separate the outer husks from the inner nibs.
Chocolate makers grind the nibs into what’s called chocolate liquor, and then grind them again after the addition of other ingredients such as sugar, milk power, and vanilla. Afterwards the chocolate is heated and cooled to specific temperatures so that it sets with the desired look and texture.
Today, South America is no longer the primary source for chocolate. Rather, multinational chocolate makers are heavily dependent on chocolate from West Africa. Fortune Magazine reports that more than 70% of the world’s cocoa is grown in the region, and the vast majority of that supply comes from two countries: Ivory Coast and Ghana, which together produce 60% of the global total.
So, you may ask, how did cacao production move from South America to West Africa?
INAFORESTA, in international voluntary group dedicated to the analysis and improvement of the relationships between cocoa, trees and forest worldwide, gives a capsule history on its website.
Spanish conquistador Hernán (or Hernando) Cortés, who went to Mexico, headed for the Aztec capital, and brought back chocolate to the Spanish court in 1528 along with the equipment necessary for brewing the drink. (In exchange, Cortés left the indigenous population with a number of Western diseases such as smallpox which caused huge fatalities, but we digress.)
The Spanish court went wild for the chocolate drink, adding cane sugar, vanilla, cinnamon and pepper.
As recounted in the book Bite-Sized History of France by Stéphane Hénaut & Jeni Mitchell, many Spanish Jews were involved in the chocolate trade and processing of chocolate, which meant that the industry moved around Europe as Jews were booted out of one country after another.
The industry first moved to France when Jews were banished from Spain and Portugal during the Spanish Edict of Expulsion in 1492 and the Portuguese Inquisition in 1536. Some of these Jews resettled in Bayonne in the Basque region of southwestern France and there built the country’s first chocolate factories.
Alas, the secrets of the craft became more widely known, along with a glimpse of the profits that could be made from it, and in 1761 the Jews were banned from the chocolate business by the city of Bayonne’s envious Christian leadership. Previously, in 1681, Jews had already been banned from making chocolate outside of the St. Esprit suburb in which they were forced to live. And while they could trade in the city proper, they could not sell chocolate on Sundays or Christian feast days. A Bordeaux court annulled the decree in 1767, because apparently many in Bayonne preferred the chocolate of the Jews. (See On the Chocolate Trail: A Delicious Adventure Connecting Jews, Religions, History, Travel, Rituals and Recipes to the Magic of Cacao by Deborah Prinz, 2013)
Hénaut & Mitchell recount that chocolate remained a luxury product until cacao was introduced to West African colonies, which helped reduce the price (because: slave labor). Cocoa plantations soon spread throughout the African continent. This led to the decline of production in South America, because it was cheaper not having to actually pay for labor, and easier to get the product back to Europe from Africa. Then the Industrial Revolution made possible the mass production of the chocolate bar, and eventually, as the authors write, “most people were eating rather than drinking chocolate.”
Today, while “slaves” aren’t used, laborers – not always working voluntarily – don’t exactly make a living wage.
As the Washington Post reports:
“According to recent research from Fairtrade International, the median income for a cocoa household in the Ivory Coast — the nation that produces more of the world’s cocoa than any other — is just $2,707 per year, an amount hovering close to the extreme poverty level of $2,276. The research of more than 3,000 households found that just 12 percent of those surveyed earned a living income.”
In Ghana, the second-largest cocoa producer – the average age of cocoa farmers is 52, and few young people see farming as an attractive vocation.
So where do the laborers come from? As Stéphane Hénaut & Jeni Mitchell explain in the book Bite-Sized History of France, “it is estimated that more than 2 million children labor on cacao farms, some trafficked from neighboring countries.”
Major chocolate companies maintain, as they have claimed now for years, that they are working to improve social conditions and thus eliminate the factors that lead to child labor. But as of 2020, the New York Times reports, there are still no laws in America to require American companies not to use sources using child labor. Even if there were such laws, there remains the question of how effectively they could be enforced.
Dr. Maricel Presilla, a culinary historian in New Jersey, and author of The New Taste of Chocolate, Revised: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes,, observes:
“Everyone wants to be able to buy chocolate and go to heaven, but the issues are complicated.”
To help you contemplate the surprisingly unpleasant complex politics of chocolate over the years, it might help to do so with a piece of the popular Bayonne Basque Chocolate Cake. The recipe comes from “The Forward,” in an article about the smuggling of chocolate to France by persecuted Jews written by food blogger Rabbi Deborah Prinz (the author of the history of chocolate book cited above):
Basque Chocolate Cake
¾ cup unsalted butter
5½ ounces bittersweet chocolate
3 large eggs
¾ cup sugar
1⁄3 cup all-purpose flour
¾ cup black cherry preserves, for serving
Crème fraîche, for serving
1) Preheat the oven to 375°F.
2) Lightly butter and flour a 9-inch round cake pan. In a large heatproof bowl set over a pan of simmering water, combine the butter and chocolate. Melt over moderate heat, stirring frequently, until smooth, about 4 minutes. Remove from the heat and let cool slightly. In a medium bowl, using an electric mixer, beat the eggs with the sugar at high speed until thick and pale, about 3 minutes. Add the flour and beat at low speed just until combined. Fold in one-third of the melted chocolate, then gently fold in the remaining chocolate; do not over mix.
3) Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 20–30 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Invert the cake onto a rack and let cool.
4) In a saucepan, warm the cherry preserves over moderate heat. Cut the cake into wedges and serve with the cherry preserves and crème fraîche.
Happy National Chocolate Day!!
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