"The Chocolate Girl" by Jean-Étienne Liotard, 1743
The Chocolate Story
From its taste to its aroma, chocolate is sensual and sexual. Its stimulant activity comes from the compound theobromine, which has been identified as one of the compounds contributing to chocolate’s reputed role as an aphrodisiac. Theobromine and caffeine are similar in that they are related alkaloids.
The cacao tree is native to Mesoamerica and cocoa beans were an important commodity in pre-Columbian time. A Spanish soldier who was part of the conquest of Mexico by Hernán Cortés tells that when Moctezuma II, emperor of the Aztecs, dined, he took no other beverage than chocolate, served in a golden goblet. Flavored with vanilla or other spices, his chocolate was whipped into a froth that dissolved in the mouth. No fewer than 60 portions each day reportedly may have been consumed by Moctezuma II in order to satisfy his many wives, and 2,000 more by the nobles of his court. Jose de Acosta, a Spanish Jesuit missionary who lived in Peru and then Mexico in the later 16th century, wrote of its growing influence on the Spaniards: “it is a drink very much esteemed among the Indians”.
Frontispiece illustration for "A treatise on the new and curious of coffee tea and chocolate", (approximate translation), Philippe Sylvestre Dufour, 1685
However, until the 16th century, no European had ever heard of the popular drink from the Central and South American peoples. Chocolate was introduced to Europe by the Spaniards, and became a popular beverage by the mid-17th century. Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés may have been the first European to encounter it. Soon after this discovery, chocolate became a fashionable drink of the nobility in Spain and then in other European countries.
The notorious Italian womanizer and author Giacomo Casanova mentions chocolate in his memoirs, frequently discussing his habit of consuming cups of chocolate in order to sustain his lustful exploits.
The Chocolate Girl is one of the most prominent pastels of Swiss artist Jean-Étienne Liotard, his masterpiece, showing a chocolate-serving maid. The girl carries a tray with a porcelain chocolate cup. Around 1900, the painting served as inspiration for the commercial illustration on Droste’s cocoa tins (Droste was a famous Dutch chocolate manufacturer owned by the Germany-based company Hosta). “The illustration indicated the wholesome effect of chocolate milk and became inextricably bound with the name Droste.”
Chocolate is associated with Easter, when moulded chocolate rabbits and eggs are traditionally given in Christian communities, and Hanukkah, when chocolate coins are given in Jewish communities. Chocolate hearts and chocolate in heart-shaped boxes are popular on Valentine’s Day. Chocolate is a perfect gift for any occasion.