The drink of the gods is back in fashion
For the Maya of Central America, cocoa was the drink of the gods, and for years after it was introduced to Europe it was the preserve of the aristocracy.
More recently it has been seen as a children's drink, but now it is making a comeback among gourmets and top chefs, who are rediscovering drinking chocolate.
Health experts are simultaneously finding out that some of the chemicals in cocoa can have a positive effect on the heart and blood circulation.
For decades the image of cocoa was that of a commercially prepared drink turned into a sweetened instant powder and directed at the children's market.
Shops and supermarkets stopped stocking pure cocoa, which is characterised by its dark brown colour and bitter tang, but now the unadulterated product is finding new markets.
"Once the sugar is removed and replaced by more interesting tastes, such as ginger, even men begin to take an interest," says Martin van Almsinck, who works for the Chocolate Museum Imhoff-Stollwerck in Cologne.
The art of making good cocoa consists in adding spices and other ingredients. In the museum's cafe there are 14 different kinds of drinking chocolate.
For example the "Pink Pepper" flavour has a piquant tang, while the "Grande Aroma Fromboise", with its spirit of raspberries, has a fruity nose.
The Dutch Cocoa House in Hanover, which has specialised in drinking chocolate since 1921, offers a similarly wide range of hot drinks.
"Our Chocolate Hawaii is a hit, with Cointreau and a dollop of cream," says Monika Schneider, who works there.
Amaretto, rum, brandy or egg liqueur can all provide that special lift for cocoa, but it can also be turned into a delicious drink without the addition of alcohol.
Michael Beck, a top chef from the Old Rose Restaurant in Hofheim-Wildsachsen in the German state of Hesse believes well-spiced cocoa is an ideal pick-me-up during the cold and dark times of the year.
"Bring milk to the boil, add the finely chopped chocolate and stir thoroughly with a pinch of salt. Then add nutmeg, cinammon, cloves and green cardamom," Beck says.
Cocoa's stimulative effect - it was once regarded as an aphrodisiac - comes from some of the chemicals in the cocoa bean.
The plant, which carries the scientific name Theobroma cacao L, contains caffein along with another stimulant theobromine.
In addition it contains substances that are needed for the body to make the hormone serotonin, which induces a happy feeling.
"Nowhere else has nature compressed such a store of the most valuable nutrients into such a small place as it has with the cocoa bean," the researcher Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) once said.
The trace elements potassium and magnesium are found in cocoa, along with polyphenols, chemicals that have only recently been studied.
Susanne Schelosky, a scientist at the Institute for Nutrition Studies at Nuthetal near Potsdam, says: "Bitter chocolate with a high cocoa content can have the effect of depressing the blood pressure slightly."
Cocoa also contains anti-oxidants, which are thought to protect against heart disease and cancer, although experts certainly do not advise that patients should start consuming large quantities of chocolate, as the negative effects of the high fat content outweigh the benefits.
Drinking chocolate, however, usually contains much less fat.
"The cocoa bean has a natural fat content of more than 50%, while cocoa powder only contains 10 to 20%," Van Almsinck says.
After being roasted most cocoa bean kernels are ground up into a a fatty mass, but to make cocoa powder alkalis are used and the resultant liquid allowed to dry.
Most cocoa beans these days come from the Côte d'Ivoire and Ghana, which together account for more than half the world's production.
While the Forastero strain grown here accounts for the bulk of world production, the variety Criollo, grown in Madagascar and the Caribbean is regarded by many experts to be of better quality and with a stronger aroma.
The Olmeks gave the plant the name "kakawa" some 3 000 years ago. When the Spanish conquered Mexico around 1500 they at first dismissed cocoa as too bitter, but soon found the addition of sugar made it more palatable.
Modern chefs are thus following in a long tradition. - Sapa-DPA
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