It's a treat with a fascinating history.

By Randi Gollin
January 19, 2021
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To most chocolate lovers, Valentine's Day without bars, bonbons, bark, turtles, or perhaps truffles, just wouldn't be worth celebrating. While a box (even a bag!) of such treats ranks among the best gifts, ever, there are other ways to embrace the joys of chocolate, especially on this day of love. 

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Credit: Yunhee Kim

Which brings us to hot chocolate. Whether traditional (our test kitchen's favorite) or frozen (combining frozen and chilled hot chocolate), spiced with ancho chile and cinnamon or cinnamon, cardamom, and cayenne, made tropical with white chocolate, coconut, and rum, or French style, hot chocolate is a truly special way to cap off dinner à deux with your valentine. Plus, it's homemade. And even more intriguing, it's a throwback to ancient cultures and European royalty. 

Chocolate, The Drink of Choice

Drinking chocolate was the original mode of consuming chocolate, predating chocolate confections by thousands of years. Cocoa drinks were also acknowledged as more than a simple treat. "Theobroma cacao, the Latin name for cacao, which chocolate is made out of, means 'food of the gods.' It was regarded as a sacred elixir in ancient Mayan times," says Julia Choi Rodriguez, pastry chef and co-owner of Vesta Chocolate, an organic bean-to-bar craft chocolate factory, and café in Montclair, New Jersey that includes hot chocolate among its offerings. Cacao beans were also said to have fueled the romantic endeavors of Montezuma, the leader of the Aztecs, Choi adds.

"Cocoa drinks are much more ancient than chocolate bars—for the far greater part of its history as something humans consumed for health or for pleasure, chocolate was taken as a drink," explains Dr. Kristy Leissle, a scholar of cocoa and chocolate, author of Cocoa ($19.95, amazon.com) and co-founder of the Cocoapreneurship Institute of Ghana, which supports entrepreneurs working at any stage of the cocoa value chain in West Africa. 

The Aztec and Maya people used the beans in myriad ways, and they were also avid drinkers of cocoa, she says, concocting beverages that might not be familiar to people today. "Those societies mixed it with ground maize as a thickener, added spices like vanilla, pepper, floral extracts, and many others." And preparations also varied depending on the wealth and status of the person drinking it or whether it was consumed for rituals, socializing, or strength. "One of the features that has been largely lost to modern hot chocolate drinks was a foam that was created by pouring the cocoa into a vessel from a height,” says Dr. Leissle. "That foam was prized and meant that it was a 'special occasion' drink, or would be served to a notable person."

Hot Chocolate's Evolution

Many notables in Western Europe were among its most ardent fans. Spanish conquistadors brought cacao beans to Spain, in the 1500s, and by the 1700s, drinking chocolate had developed into a sweeter hot beverage in Europe. Introduced to the French court on Louis XIII's wedding day in 1615, it became all the rage among the nobility. Louis XIV appointed his own personal chocolate maker. Louis XV drank hot chocolate religiously, while one of his mistresses, Madame du Barry, prized it as an aphrodisiac. "People across societies, historically, and today, have often believed that eating or drinking chocolate could have a sensual effect on the body," says Dr. Leissle. 

It was also a high-class luxury. Marie Antoinette brought her own chocolate maker to Versailles, who made drinks with chocolate, orange blossom, or sweet almond. Fittingly, it was served in elaborate chocolatière pots and cups. 

In the 17th and 18th centuries, privileged society hobnobbed in chocolate houses in Paris and London, clamoring for chocolate beverages spiced with cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla, and, of course, sugar. Some even enjoyed it for breakfast, with add-ins like egg yolks and pieces of bread. By 1842, Cadbury offered 16 kinds of drinking chocolate, available in pressed cakes or powder, and 11 different cocoas, in flakes, powders, and nibs. It wasn't until 1847 that another British chocolate maker, J.S. Fry and Sons, produced what were likely the first chocolate bars, while Cadbury spearheaded the trend of gifting chocolate on Valentine's Day in the late 1860s.

The Drink Comes Full Circle

Made from bittersweet or semisweet chocolate or cocoa powder, combined with any number of milks, hot chocolate has captured our hearts. And some modern-day concoctions still hearken back to hot chocolate's earliest beginnings. "Nowadays, more and more, I am seeing hot chocolate flavored with vanilla bean, cinnamon, chile pepper, cardamom, and other spices that would have been part of the Aztec and Maya cocoa drink repertoire," says Dr. Leissle. 'It's actually a really exciting time for hot chocolate lovers, with novel drinks and ancient recipes being revived." This Valentine's Day, celebrate cupid's holiday with a mug of rich, indulgent sweet or spicy hot chocolate. Spiking it is up to you.

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