Chocolate & Spain: A Passionate History

February 2008

It is not that I think Cupid should be playing castanets, but I do know that it is due to Christopher Columbus and Hernán Cortés that you can give a gift of chocolate to your loved one this St Valentines Day.

Spaniards have been enthralled with chocolate since 1544. It was then that Dominican friars, accompanied by Mayans from Guatemala, presented containers of ready to drink frothed chocolate to young Prince Philip, soon to be Philip II. He and his entourage were enchanted. 

Soon any Spanish nobleman worth his salt reconfigured his house so that he would have a Chocolate Room – usually situated between the Large Hall and the drawing room. There, as a man of leisure, he would spend hours in pleasant conversation with significant friends and political associates. 

Philip, as a devout and pious man, faced a troubling dilemma. He found that a cup of chocolate assuaged his hunger when he was fasting. But what if chocolate was a food, rather than a beverage? Then he would be deprived of chocolate during Lent and other holy days throughout the liturgical year. 

Fortunately, a series of popes who were consulted during this ongoing debate agreed that since a person drank chocolate rather than eating it, chocolate was not a food, and therefore it did not break the fast. 

Philip II moved the capital of Spain from Toledo to Madrid and by the 1620's the city's population numbered about 130,000 people. Believe it or not, the new city had more than 700,000 pounds of cacao and chocolate in shops and warehouses. 

Spaniards and Portuguese consumed phenomenal amounts of chocolate for the next hundred years, while the rest of Europe was completely unaware. Chocolate sweet shops called chocolaterías sprung up throughout the Iberian Peninsula, and by the 19th Century one third of the world's entire Cacao production was consumed by Spaniards. At La Tienda we offer Blanxart, a splendid line of chocolate made in Barcelona. Their trade mark of a medieval chocolate maker, (see above) reflects their commitment to the traditional chocolate craft.

As Chocolate spread beyond Spain, their European possessions moved to the forefront of chocolate production – especially the Spanish Netherlands (which are today Holland and Belgium!) When Emperor Charles VI transferred his court from Madrid to Vienna in 1711 the use of chocolate advanced to Eastern Europe.

Cacao is a product grown in the Amazon rain forests of Ecuador and Venezuela. The use of chocolate as a beverage progressed via the Mayans and the Olmecs of Central America and thence to the Aztecs and finally the Spaniards. Each day Emperor Montezuma drank fifty or more golden goblets of chocolate, and it was ritually used at betrothal and wedding ceremonies. Chocolate was a symbol of marriage. (Maybe that's where Cupid got the idea.)

Olmecs, Aztecs, and later, Spanish soldiers were issued wafers of cacao, which they would consume for extra strength during marches and in battle. One of the coincidences of history is that five hundred years later during the First World War the American army included three four-ounce chocolate bars in a soldier's "D-Ration" for much the same purpose. 

In World War II virtually all US chocolate production was requisitioned for the military. Although the purpose of the available chocolate was to sustain our men in battle, American GI's generously shared their chocolate with hungry children in Europe. The chocolate bars became associated with the return of peace and normalcy.

The next time you are in Madrid be sure to visit a fabled chocolatería located next to the Church of San Ginés, in the neighborhood of Puerta del Sol. The street level has a charming 19th Century bar with white marble tables. Even today, well over one hundred years later, this magical place is filled to the brim with people of all ages enjoying chocolate a la taza (thick hot chocolate in which you dip churros). The Chocolateria San Ginés is never closed, and is especially busy in the early evening after work. And there is standing room only from four in the morning onwards, to the delight of "night owls" who are wrapping up their all night revelry! 

Certainly our family is grateful for the Spanish explorers who introduced chocolate to our culture. The entire La Tienda office staff are huge chocolate enthusiasts. One of the hazards of working at La Tienda is that in the twinkling of an eye we can steal down to our showroom and get a bar of chocolate or a box of Rabitos! It is a temptation which is pretty hard to resist.

We hope all of you have a special time on St Valentine's Day. It is a really nice personal holiday. And remember, they say chocolate is good for your heart!