Easter is celebrated on the first Sunday after the Paschal full moon following the northern hemisphere’s spring equinox. For non-Christians the celebration is mostly about holidays and chocolate – for Christians the celebration of the Resurrection is the cornerstone of faith.
As a botanist I considered exploring Jesus’ crown of thorns, or the wood of the Cross. Our editor suggested chocolate might have a broader appeal. Historically there have been other views. The Aztecs considered that cacao was stimulating and intoxicating and accordingly was unsuitable for women and children. Indeed, cacao as a beverage was only served to priests, military officers and distinguished warriors (including enemy warriors prior to execution) and of course government officials.
The name cacao derives from the Nahuatl (or Aztec) word cacahuatl. Theobroma cacao is the understorey tree that provides the source of cacao (cocoa) beans. Linnaeus’ binomial is instructive – Theobroma translates from the ancient Greek as ‘food of the Gods’, certainly resonant with the cultural narratives of cacao for the central American Olmec and Mayan people whose use of cacao extends back to at least 1500 BC. The Maya celebrated an annual festival in Muán (April) to honour Ek Chuah, the god of cocoa (along with other portfolios) – the celebrations included, amongst other rituals, the sacrifice of a dog and an exchange of gifts.
Determining the original distribution of Theobroma cacao in the wild is challenging as cultivation dates back thousands of years and cultivated trees may persist in tropical forest understoreys. Current DNA evidence suggests the origin of cacao on the Brazilian border of Columbia and Peru. Botanically Theobroma is part of the Sterculiaceae or Malvaceae depending on whose classification you choose to accept. Cacao grows from about four to eight metres high as an understorey tree. The flowers are small and attached directly to the trunk and older branches (a habit known as cauliflory) and are pollinated by biting midges (Forcipomyia) that breed in the decaying fruits. The fruits are 15 to 30cm long and less than half as wide, weigh around 500 gm and hold 20 to 60 seeds most commonly referred to as cacao or cocoa beans (that were a form of currency in Yucatan until the 19th and even into the 20th century).
The 1552 Badianus manuscript, the famed Aztec herbal, includes cacao in a section covering, The trees and flowers for relieving the fatigue of those administering the government and discharging public offices. The manuscript describes how cacao flowers were strewn in perfumed baths to reduce the fatigue experienced by Aztec government officials (there doesn’t seem to have been a clear policy in relation to the use of such supplements by administrators). In addition to these benefits for public officials a range of other benefits are claimed for cacao. In 1519 Cortes records Moctezuma drinking chocolate before visiting his wives – subsequent interpretations suggest the value of chocolate as an aphrodisiac although perhaps Moctezuma was simply addressing the fatigue characteristic of those holding public office.
Linnaeus explored the medicinal uses of cacao in his 1741 monograph Om Chokladdryken. Linnaeus observes cacao’s medicinal and dietary value and deemed cacao an effective aphrodisiac (although Linnaeus seemed to have an especially prurient interest in botany). More recently the prolonged intake of flavanol-rich cocoa has been linked to benefits for cardiovascular function. The research relates to raw cocoa and to a lesser extent, dark chocolate, as the flavonoids degrade during cooking and alkalizing processes. Studies include research with Kuna Amerindian people living on offshore islands in Panama who have significantly lower rates of cardiovascular disease compared to those on the mainland whose cocoa consumption is limited. In particular, the benefits may extend to the brain and have important implications for learning and memory.
Cacao reached Europe as part of the Columbian exchange that readers of this column have explored previously. Cacao was fashionable in Britain before coffee – which might seem surprising given that Coffea is native to Africa in the Old World. The Queen’s Lane Coffee House on High Street in Oxford dating from 1654 continues to serve both chocolate and coffee. The addition of sugar and milk is a later affectation. The Manner of Making of Coffee, Tea, and Chocolate, published by Sylvestre Dufour in 1685 describes an early recipe including white sugar with cacao beans, as well as cinnamon, pimiento, cloves, vanilla and achiote. The invention of milk chocolate is most often accorded to the Swiss Daniel Peter and Henri Nestlé in the late 19th century.
Haigh’s chocolates in Adelaide are the only chocolate manufacturer in Australia (and one of a few in the world) that import and roast cocoa beans as the basis for their premium chocolate products (rather than simply purchasing prepared cocoa butter and powder). So for Easter you might consider Haigh’s chocolate eggs redolent with their Christian imagery of the Resurrection as the basis for celebration and gift giving. If you’re averse to this tradition never mind – Haigh’s Easter bilbies are just as delicious and the message for environmental reconciliation is a worthwhile one given the historical and current rabbit menace in Australia.
Originally published in The Adelaide Review on 15 March 2013.