Did you know that the first use of chocolate by the Aztecs and other Central and South American peoples was probably as an alcoholic beverage?
Academics from John Hopkins and Pennsylvania Universities have found evidence from early drinking vessels that pulp from the chocolate plant was used to brew an alcoholic drink. It was much later that the beans were also used to make a drink; probably only fifteen hundred or so years ago. The drinking vessels that yielded up the evidence that they fermented the pulp, came from as far back as 3400 years past.
Chocolate comes from a small tree found in South American rain forests: theobroma cacao. There are several varieties, the most common of which is the forastero. The majority of chocolate consumed is a mixture of varieties.
The process of making a bar of chocolate is quite a lengthy one.
First the fruit is picked from the tree. It is a pod the size of an egg plant or aubergine, in it there are twenty or thirty beans.
The next step is fermentation, this process allows the beans to be separated from the pod. The fermentation process is nothing more than stacking in piles or large containers. This takes a few days, the beans are then dried and are then broken open to extract the 'nib' which is then ground up, liquefied and processed into the chocolate that we all know and love.
In the process the fatty component known as cocoa butter is removed and some reintroduced at a later stage and after further processing of both components. Controlling the cocoa butter content has an effect on the texture of the finished chocolate.
As with coffee a roasting phase has to take place. This takes place at a temperatire of 200 to 300 derees Fahrenheit.
Grinding up the chocolate is a lengthy process. Achieving a smooth texture can take several hours. The industry term for this process is 'conching' Steel balls in a mill break the powder in to ever finer particles.
Chocolate as a Cough Medicine! - Count me in on this one!!! it has been discovered that theobromine, an ingredient in chocolate is very effective in inhibiting coughing, even more than codeine or some of the synthetic cough suppressants in proprietary medicines. According to Wikipedia it has also been used as a diarrhea suppressant, and this is confirmed by other sources but only small amounts of pure dark chocolate is likely to have any noticaeble effect.
Unfortunately the large chocolate producers have been lobbying to allow hydrogenated fats to be added as a substitute for the cocoa butter.
Chocolate also contains the stimulant drugs caffeine and theobromine.
Fortunately one can also find Specialty producers such as the Grenada Chocolate Company who produce ultra fine chocolate that has none of the tricks that one finds with the industrial varieties. An advantage of such products is that the important flavonoids are still present in the finished product.
Update Nov 2009 - A study carried out in Switzerland (Where else??) found that volunteers given 40g of dark chocolate daily were less stressed. Levels of stress hormones dropped most dramatically in those those who suffered from stress traits. The team of scientists' research was published in the 'Journal of Proteome Research'.