The Food of the Gods

RNW archive

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Chocolate might be the western world’s most desired edible product. For some it’s comfort food, for others a substitute for sex. Dheera Sujan traces the history of the fussy cacao plant and its precious bean.


Chocolate has become such a common product we barely notice the dozens of different chocolate bars that line the supermarket shelves. But when we want it, there’s no denying it. It’s the ubiquitous comfort food, originally prized as an aphrodisiac. The humble cacao bean has made a long journey from the ritual drink of the ancient Aztecs to the confectionery treat so familiar to us today.

Cocoa in Amsterdam

The chocolate tree is called theobroma cacao – literally, the food of the gods. It’s a fussy plant that only grows in a band twenty degrees north and twenty degrees south of the equator. It needs the protection of shade trees so it’s often grown in forests or in small plots shared by other crops.

After the bean is harvested, dried and fermented, it’s ready for the first stage of its journey across the ocean. There’s a good chance that it’s first foreign destination will be the port of Amsterdam where 50% of the world’s cocoa is stored at any given time.

Dutch chocolate

The Dutch have made important contributions to the production of chocolate as we know it today. In 1815 Casparus van Houten opened a chocolate factory in Amsterdam. At that time, cocoa beans were ground into a fine mass, which could then be mixed with milk to create a chocolate drink. However, the high fat content made the chocolate very hard to digest.

In 1828 van Houten patented an inexpensive method for pressing the fat from roasted cocoa beans. Van Houten's hydralic press reduced the cocoa butter content by nearly half. This created a "cake" that could be pulverized into cocoa powder which was to become the basis of all chocolate products.

The introduction of cocoa powder not only made creating chocolate drinks much easier, but also made it possible to combine chocolate with sugar and then remix it with cocoa butter to create a solid, closely resembling today's eating chocolate. Van Houten’s son, Coenraad, introduced a further improvement by treating the powder with alkaline salts so that the powder would mix more easily with water, a process still known as “Dutching.”

The Food of the Gods was produced by Dheera Sujan. The documentary was originally broadcast in July 2001.