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Victorian Valentine's Card
Aztec woman preparing the cacao drink
Poster for Fry and Sons Chocolate, Bristol, 1901
The Romantic History of Chocolate
Saint Valentine's Day is celebrated on February 14th, and for some with gifts of cards, flowers and chocolates, as signs of affection. The Saint Valentine linked with the present festival, was a Roman bishop in the third century, who is said to have been martyred because he allowed Roman soldiers to be married in the Christian church, against the laws of the time. Roman soldiers were supposed to remain unmarried because it was thought they would then be more daring fighters. Bishop Valentine is reputed to have signed his farewell letter, before his martyrdom in AD 270, 'from your Valentine'. It is almost a co-incidence that his feast day on February 14th has become the present festival of Valentine's Day.
During the medieval period, in England and France, it was a common belief that birds began to find their mates halfway through the second month of the year. Chaucer wrote around 1375, in his Parlement of Foules, 'For this was on Seynt Valentyne's Day, whan every foul cometh ther to choose his mate'. He thus linked the romantic tradition of courtly love with the date of the celebration of St Valentine's Day on February 14th. For this reason the day came to be dedicated to romance and love and the exchange of letters and gifts. Both French and English literature contains references to the practice of declaring an interest in a possible mate on February 14th by means of letters.
St Valentine kneelilng in supplication
The link between chocolate and romance is less clear, but some recent studies of dating profiles have shown that those participants, who had recently consumed chocolate or sugary foods, were more likely to show interest in potential partners.
It has also been shown that eating chocolate can cause the brain to release mood enhancing chemicals such as dopamine, serotonin and phenylethylamine, which might translate into an enhanced interest in romance and love. So perhaps it is no co-incidence that gifts of chocolate are associated with pleasing or seducing a possible partner.
Chocolate originated in Central America as a drink prepared by the Olmec, Mayan and Aztec early civilizations. The revered tree producing the cocoa beans grew in the rain forests. These beans were considered to be so valuable that they were used as a form of currency. In fact the word cacao meant 'the food of the gods' and the tree was thought to be of divine origin. The Aztec god Quetzalcoatl, manifest as a feathered serpent, was believed to be responsible for bringing the cacao tree to man.
Central American civilizations began drinking chocolate as early as the 12th century BC, as traces of chocolate have been found in pottery from that period. Various chocolate beverages were developed: some of the preparations contained spices like cinnamon and chili, while others were fermented and contained alcohol. Chocolate was drunk to celebrate births and weddings, and was shared by the bride and groom at their marriage ceremony as it was associated with fertility. Cacao was also included in burials for the deceased to sustain their journey through the underworld.
Chocolate was unknown in Europe until the 16th century, when the Spanish conquistadors brought cacao beans back to Spain from Central America. The drink of cocoa was modified for European tastes with cinnamon and sugar, and became so popular that it spread throughout Europe as a drink for the aristocracy.
White's Chocolate House, London c.1708
When chocolate as a drink was introduced to England in the 17th century it was reputed to be an aphrodisiac, a fertility aid and a hangover cure. The diarist Samuel Pepys recorded drinking chocolate at a chocolate house on 24th April 1661, to cure his hangover from the previous evening's celebrations of the coronation of King Charles II. London chocolate houses were the social centres of the 17th century, although later they declined as many had become gambling houses. By the 18th century many had either disappeared or became Gentlemen's Clubs.
Casanova, the 18th century Italian adventurer, and allegedly the world's most successful lover, was reputed to have drunk chocolate to increase his energy levels, before pursuing his interests. However, chocolate was the fashionable popular drink for the wealthy at the time, associated with general health benefits and not just as an aphrodisiac.
It was not until the late 18th century that the Frenchman Doret, while residing in Turin, Italy, invented a press to grind the cocoa beans into a paste, allowing the first large-scale production of chocolate as an edible solid to begin. In England the most famous families involved in chocolate production were Quakers, including Cadbury, Fry and Rowntree. Joseph Fry founded his factory in Bristol in 1761, first producing cocoa, and began selling the world's first chocolate bar in 1847. It was a mixture of cocoa butter, cocoa powder and sugar, creating a paste which was pressed into a mould. The chocolate bar was so successful that the factory in Bristol became the largest of its kind in Europe.
When Victoria became Queen in 1837 the practice of sending cards and cupid-decorated gifts on Valentine's Day was encouraged. In 1861 Richard Cadbury used February 14th as a marketing opportunity for his eating chocolates as gifts. He designed heart-shaped boxes, decorated with cupids and rosebuds for the chocolates. When they had been eaten the attractive boxes could be used for mementos, like love letters. The link between chocolates and romance was secured.
Today some benefits to health, including reduction in stress and circulatory disease, and improvements in concentration, have been associated with eating dark chocolate with 70% cocoa content. Unfortunately, the recommended consumption is equivalent to only about one small bar per week.
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