Susan of MY2K is one of the first blog friends and followers to visit this site. She's a loyal reader and aficionado in my little kitchen, and she posts incredibly interesting stories about Mayan glyphs and the mysterious civilization's multi-faceted culture. She and I share the fascination for all things central American, and among these, chocolate. One very interesting post of hers dealt with cacao beans used as currency. Here is an excerpt from that piece:
"For the ancient Maya, cacao beans were money. A rabbit was worth ten beans, as an example. They really did have money growing on trees. The fruit that surrounds the bitter seeds is sweet and was eaten by both monkeys and early man. Later, early civilizations discovered the seeds to be a wonderful, bitter, enticing food when roasted. The name kakawa is the original name from the Olmecs in 1000 BC. By the time of the Maya, cacao beans were even counterfeited. It was possible to remove the delicious center and substitute dirt or less valuable pieces of food before passing it off as cash."You can read the full post HERE.
xocolatl which is a combination of words meaning 'bitter waters.' Indeed, the unsweetened hot, frothy beverage with stimulant properties the Aztecs made of pounded cacao beans and spices was probably extremely bitter. Chocolate was reserved for warriors, nobility and priests. The Aztecs esteemed its reputed ability to confer wisdom and vitality. Taken fermented as a drink, chocolate was also used in religious ceremonies. Between a bloody game of pelota and a savage human scarifice, a nice cup of steaming xocolatl was the best way to replete. Bitterness notwithstanding, the Aztec king Montezuma so believed that chocolate was an aphrodisiac that he purportedly drank 50 golden goblets of it each day (I can see where the legendary namesake revenge comes from).
To quote Susan, from one of our droolsome chocolate-induced conversations, "Aztecs, Olmecs, Maya, Spanish, English - they fought with each other but they kept the name for chocolate intact!" And we thank them on behalf of humanity.
How bland can a day be without a triangle of honey flavored Swiss Toblerone? What's the use of getting out of bed if there are no chocolate shavings in your cappuccino? If you know me a little by now, you'll comprehend how I cannot resist the temptation of Nutella. Can you recall the excitement upon walking in your first chocolatier? I purposely got lost during a guided tour of one of Torino's most famous chocolate factories just to manage a second go at the sample table.
It's my addiction. I'm not a dessert person, but chocolate is my weakness. Blissful is the midnight snack that begins with a chunk of glossy brown heaven wedged between my teeth and a salty crust of bread to go with it.
Italy competes with France and Switzerland for the best European chocolate. In the region of Piemonte alone, there are more master chocolatiers than in Belgium and France combined. In Tuscany, there is such a concentration of fine chocolate makers, that journalists have dubbed the area between Florence and Pisa the Chocolate Valley.
In the course of the weeks to follow I will set an appointment with you. Once a week, I will illustrate examples of the many Italian chocolate excellencies that dot our Peninsula. Let me begin this choco-monograph by telling you of one very chocolaty city in particular.
TORINO, the Gianduja capital of the world
Can you even begin to imagine a city where a special type of milk chocolate first prepared in 1852 by Pierre Paul Caffarel has inspired a famous praline, a Commedia dell'Arte character mask and self-appointed nickname? This decadent preparation of chocolate containing about 50% hazelnut and almond paste, is the symbol of the most epicurean Italian city of them all. The Napoleonic gem, Torino.
Caffrel's invention of Gianduja chocolate was out of necessity. Due to the long Napoleonic Wars, the transport of spices, coffee and cacao beans across the Atlantic was severely curtailed, and Europe began to experience unacceptable chocolate shortages. To extend their meager supplies of cocoa, Caffarel began blending ground hazelnuts into their cacao. The result was a creamy, flavorful delight, and it became an instant success.
Gianduja is a Carnival and Commedia dell'Arte marionette character who represents the archetypal Piemontese: sweet, guileful and overly polite. During the 1865 carnival celebrations in Torino, masked Gianduja began handing out a new chocolate truffle, the gianduiotto.
Gianduiotti are now the specialty of Torino, bite-size chocolate mouthfuls whose shape is similar to an upturned canoe. Gianduiotti are individually wrapped in gold-colored tin foil, and melt in your mouth leaving you inevitably addicted for more. Like it is said of cherries, uno tira l'altro, or "one pulls the next [into the mouth]".
Trivia Note: Asti-born writer and broadcaster, Bruno Gambarotta, wrote a comic gastro-thriller entitled "Il codice Gianduiotto" (English: The Gianduiotto Code). The novel is a parody of the Dan Brown bestseller and centers on the mysteries of the secret formula for the perfect Gianduiotto.