Over the course of the last dozen years, Tuscany has taken the lead as an area known for its production of custom-made world-quality chocolates. A small group of artisans, colloquially called cioccolatieri, have taken this new role seriously, from start to finish. Teams personally go to procure the best raw materials in distant lands and return to Italy with the ingredients and knowledge to transform them into specialties sought out by connoisseurs and chocolate lovers. Local production is strictly a non-commercial, artisan affair. All the steps in the process, from roasting to blending, sweetening and conversion into pralines, bars and cremes, is managed and carried out by master producers dedicated to non-industrial production methods, often in visitable workshops (typically open by appointment only). The resulting high quality of the chocolate is very closely guarded by local producers, and thanks to their delicious creations, chocolate has recently been regarded as a “typical product” of Tuscany, dubbed “Chocolate Valley” by a foreign food journalist.
The fascinating history behind the chocolate we adore today starts with the discovery of cacao trees by the Conquistadores in the early 1500s during their conquests in the Amazon delta. There are indications that the Maya civilisation brewed a beverage from roasted cocoa beans 2000 years before the discovery of America. Historians also believe ancient dwellers in the Yucatan peninsula not only drank powdered cacahuatl dissolved in tepid water, but they so prized the beans that they became a commercially applied currency, like tulip bulbs in the Netherland. Aztec mythology ascribed the origins of the cocoa drink to the coagulated blood of a princess who had perished of unrequited love.
In 1519, Montezuma greeted Hernan Cortez in present-day Mexico with gifts of his most precious possessions: baskets overflowing with gold, silver and cacao beans. Soon Spain and Portugal held an absolute monopoly on liquid cacao, originally unsweetened with sugar but spiced with pepper, cinnamon and other aromas, that was to last well into the 17th century. Thanks to the Arab influence over the Iberian peninsula with their enduring love of sweetmeats, desserts, and pastries cocoa powder began being sweetened then brewed and mixed with milk.
It quickly became so popular and widely used that in 1569 Pope Pius V officially allowed the consumption of one daily cup even during Lenten fasting. Maria Antoinette never traveled without her hot-chocolate service of gilded copper and finest porcelain. Poets and musicians like Goldoni, Mozart, and Proust sang the fluid’s praises in their works.
In 1779 a Pamphlet was released in Venice called Dell'Uso e dell'Abuso della Cioccolata, On the Use and Abuse of Chocolate, in which the anonymous author opined that “what ambrosia is to the gods, chocolate is to mortals.”
Up to this point, the fervor for chocolate was strictly limited to liquid form - there was only solid eating chocolate from 1847 onwards, with solid milk chocolate appearing in 1876. In 1828 the Dutch Carl van Houten succeeded in extracting cocoa butter from the seeds, and in 1847 the English firm of Fry and Sons produced the first dark and sweetened eating chocolate (not milk-infused yet).
It would be 1874 before anyone got around to making milk chocolate, in the form of two competitors who would later become colleagues, the Swiss Henri Nestlé and Daniel Peter.
Manchester’s George Cadbury had started to package and sell creme-filled pralines covered in dark chocolate in 1866, while Swiss Rudolphe Lindt was becoming successful with very smooth bitter and bittersweet chocolate bars.
Today’s industrial chocolate has little in common with the quality and flavors of the true, old-fashioned and necessarily costly products that can only be, and fortunately still are, made by small artisan enterprises.