By LIZ BUTTON
The history of any one thing is the history of everything. That is the philosophy behind the Rye Historical Society’s Square House museum’s new series of historical tutorials. And on the evening of Jan. 23, the one thing in question was chocolate.
Advertising executive Michael Jordan, whose list of clients includes high-end chocolatier Lindt, presented a lecture at the museum on the long history of the flavorful confection.
“Over the years, I learned quite a bit about the way that chocolate is made,” Jordan, who had the chance during his advertising career to study with some of Lindt’s master chocolatiers, said.
Jordan, husband of Square House museum director Sheri, also provided free chocolate samples for the night, all donated by Lindt.
The chocolate people eat comes from the cacao plant, which produces foot-long pods that contain cocoa beans accompanied by white pulp, Jordan told the assembled.
In pre-Columbian times, the Mayans and the Aztecs of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula used cocoa beans for trade and in religious rites. To these Amazon tribes, cocoa beans represented life and fertility and were eaten not as a dessert, but as a nutritious food. Mayan and Aztec warriors drank a bitter drink made from cocoa for energy before going into battle.
In the late 1400s, Spanish explorer Hernando Cortes landed in Mexico and was impressed by the natives’ many cacao plantations. Cortes brought cocoa back to Europe, where it was mixed with sugar and milk, Jordan said, the first steps toward becoming the sweet candy people eat today.
In the 1500s, the prevalence of chocolate spread to the rest of Europe, beginning its move outward from Spain when the seat of the Hapsburg Dynasty was transferred to Vienna, Austria. During the Spanish Inquisition, persecuted Jews fled the Spanish Empire, some of whom brought chocolate with them to other regions of Europe.
Social changes wrought in the aftermath of the French Revolution, from 1789 to 1799, spread a spirit of equality and anti-classism worldwide, while the growth of factories and new innovations in manufacturing during the Industrial Revolution of the early 1800s brought the production and dissemination of goods to a mass scale.
These changes extended to chocolate. As the years went by, chocolate shops “became almost like Starbucks is today,” opening up all around Europe, Jordan said.
Chocolate came to the U.S. in the 1700s, according to Jordan. The first major American chocolate company was Hershey’s, founded by Milton Hershey, a Mennonite, in 1903. Today, much of the chocolate Americans eat is grown in the equatorial area between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn, and much of it is imported from Africa.
After Jordan’s lecture, guests took home a variety of chocolate bars made of 85 percent cocoa, 70 percent cocoa, milk chocolate flavored with sea salt and white chocolate. Participants also sampled a variety of Lindt-brand Lindor truffles and, to round-off the selection, there were Hershey’s Kisses.
Richard and Sandy Jacobi of Rye Brook, former Rye City residents, said their family has been enjoying chocolate for a long time. Richard likened the night’s chocolate tasting to a wine tasting course he once took at SUNY Purchase.
As participants sampled chocolate containing different amounts of cocoa, Jordan explained experts use each of their five senses to experience chocolate: Dark chocolate makes a louder sound when broken in two, is harder to break and smells more pungent than milk chocolate, he said.
There are a multitude of health benefits to chocolate, Jordan added, and the darker the chocolate, the higher the cocoa content, and the more heart-healthy antioxidants it contains. Chocolate has also been proven to improve mental acuity as well as enhance mood by increasing endorphins and serotonin, he said.