WORLDFOOD – The Drink of the Gods – PART TWO

05 Jun 2003

Most people erroneously imagine that coffee and tea were the beverages that first woke Europeans to the pleasures and benefits of caffeine. In fact, cacao was responsible for the first infusion of the stimulant into European blood streams, and it was being enjoyed, especially by the Spanish Court and clergy, a half century before anyone on the Continent had heard of these competing sources of methylxanthines.

The Spanish tried unsuccessfully to keep cacao and the methods of making chocolate their little secret. But once the word about cacao circulated throughout Europe, it was received with considerable favor. In fact, within only five years after London?s first coffee house brewed its first cup of coffee in the early 1650s, chocolate had made its arrival. Samuel Pepys, who is often associated with the early coffee house life of the city, first tried chocolate in 1662 and adopted it, not coffee, as his ?morning draft?. From the mid-seventeenth century chocolate was often served alongside coffee and tea in such London coffee houses as the Cocoa Tree, a favorite hang of the literati in the early eighteenth century. From about 1675 to 1725, chocolate drinking in coffee houses became very common, but by 1750 the practice had dwindled to an oddity.

The coffee houses were reputed for temperance, and they have been described as bourgeois and puritanical. The chocolate houses or chocolate parlors, had a culture of their own, and, in the words of one historian, ?were thoroughly antipuritanical, perhaps even bordello-like places?. We can only wonder if chocolate?s pharmacological effects on the sensorium helped evoke sensuality in a way that coffee and tea, containing only caffeine, could not.

Early European chocolateers, like their Aztec and Maya predecessors, cooked their chocolate strong and thick. This chocolate was undoubtedly a powerful stimulant, as well as a nutritious and filling drink; we know that its flavor was strong enough to hide a variety of poisons and that it became the medium of choice throughout Europe for dispatching inconvenient persons until at least the time of the French Revolution. The crumbly coarse paste from which it was prepared contained carbohydrates and a large proportion of easily digested fats, protein, and minerals, making it an excellent concentrated high energy food. This was the special reason that chocolate was so readily taken up by the Catholics of the time and became popular as a clerical resort during fasting.

Italy was the second nation in Europe in which cacao became popular. Because of its use during fast days, by 1662 chocolate consumption had become a religious issue: the Roman Cardinal Brancaccio was called upon to decide whether chocolate offered so much nourishment and sensual satisfaction that its consumption during Lent was unlawful. Brancaccio came down on the side of chocolate, stating, ?Liquidum non frangit jejunum?, which means, ?Liquids do not break the fast?. This ruling confirmed the use of chocolate that had already made it a prized commodity through the Catholic world, for it was highly regarded for sustaining the devoted with nourishment and energy during their fasts. Perhaps even more important was the fact that caffeine and theobromine kill hunger pangs, an effect that is valuable indeed to those who are skipping a few meals.

By the middle of the seventeenth century, Anne of Austria (actually a Spanish princess), wife of Louis XIII, had helped make chocolate a favorite drink in France. Cardinal de Richelieu, her husband?s tutor, credited chocolate with instilling his remarkable energy, which he applied to duties of state and by virtue of which he had secured for his sovereign the absolute power that would soon descend to the King?s son, Louis XIV.

Although chocolate arrived in Germany well after coffee had done so and did not enjoy any aristocratic status from precedence as it did in Spain, it nevertheless, at least during the eighteenth century, became associated there, as it had in France, with elegance and leisure. Perhaps this had something to do with its distinctive mixture of methylxanthines. Goethe, who was instrumental in the discovery of caffeine in coffee beans, certainly had an interest in and appreciation for the pharmacological power of all the caffeinated beverages. He also had an aspiration to be embraced by the aristocracy. Although Goethe had reservations about coffee?s excessive use and berated his mistress for her lapse in their vow to abstain, he made a kind of cult of chocolate, perhaps in order to advance himself socially. But in the end his preference for the ?drink of the gods? may have been owing to the fact that, like so many people since, he simply found its unique combination of stimulants and flavors impossible to resist.Bonnie K. Bealer and Bennett A. Weinberg are experts on the subject of caffeine and its effects and are the authors of ‘The World of Caffeine: The Science and Culture of the World’s Most Popular Drug’ and ‘The Caffeine Advantage: How to Sharpen Your Mind, Improve Your Physical Performance, and Achieve Your Goals–the Healthy Way’.

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