While chocolate is commonly found at many special occasions, it is undeniable that the little dark delicacies are paramount in Valentine’s Day gifting. The history of chocolate consumption and its proliferation around the world is vast and intriguing. The story of its connection to this holiday is rather commercial, but what's to be expected of an occasion whose nickname is also the "Hallmark Holiday?"
The historical consensus on chocolate and Valentine’s Day traces the linkage to Richard Cadbury, the British chocolate baron, who pioneered the technology to create “eating chocolate” in the mid-1850’s. Prior to this innovation, chocolate was brewed and consumed in liquid form as a hot beverage similar to coffee. Cadbury’s “eating chocolate” was the first use of the pure cocoa butter that was extracted from the bean during the process of making drinking chocolate. In order to market eating chocolate, Cadbury began constructing heart shaped boxes embellished with cupids and roses, appealing to Victorian society’s propensity for lavish ornamentation. The boxes, which were intended to be keepsakes, can still be found in homes today as treasured family heirlooms. Cadbury's chocolate techniques and marketing model made their way to the United States around the turn of the 20th century.
Early Valentine’s rituals seem to be linked to various Christian/Roman traditions, however different sources cite various direct roots. The earliest reference to Valentine’s Day is believed to occur in an 1382 poem by Chaucer, and Europeans (and eventually Americans) are documented to have commemorated a late winter/early spring holiday by offering poetry, songs, roses and other gestures to their beloveds. It seems clear, though, that candies and chocolate were not historically present in early celebrations because sugar was scarce commodity in Europe.
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Although Western Europe is often credited with making chocolate world famous, the cacao tree is actually native to Central and South America. Indigenous peoples’ of Mesoamerica revered the bean as a highly prized luxury item, comparable gold and accessible to only the elite. Beans were roasted and combined with milks, cornmeal, and sweeteners to produce a beverage that Spanish colonizers referred to as “Indian Nectar,” astounded by its ability to enhance alertness and treat indigestion. We now know that cacao, especially when processed as chocolate, is one of nature’s most complex foods, with thousands of chemical compounds that benefit our bodies and minds. No wonder ancient peoples’ valued it so highly!
The chemical compounds in chocolate have been found to contribute to longevity, increase immunity, prevent heart attacks and ulcers, and improve energy. It is also a well-known aphrodisiac due to the presence of a family of compounds called phenylethyamines, which have the same effect on the brain as the natural neurotransmitter dopamine and the hormone epinephrine. Given these qualities, it is no surprise that throughout history, and before Valentine’s traditions, chocolate was used to ease nerves, create an atmosphere of elation, and to stimulate lovers.*
In our health-conscious society, chocolate has often gotten a bad rap as a “guilty pleasure.” It is true that many chocolates and chocolate products on the general market have added creams, oils, other fats, and sugars that can offset some of their benefits. However, making chocolate treats at home allows those watching their intake of sugar and fat to cut down on them while still indulging in chocolatey goodness. Health’s 28 Healthy Chocolate Recipes offers some great ideas for replacements and modified quantities of the of the ingredients that detract from chocolate’s health benefits.
And while we’re all for healthy eating, we also think indulgence is important for happiness. For this year's Valentines Day, try out our recipes for Chocolate Truffled Cookies and Dark Chocolate Souffle.
Mother Earth Living, The Medicinal Benefits of Chocolate, K.P. Singh Khalsa, November/December
Smithsonian Magazine, How Chocolate and Valentine’s Day Mated for Life, Amy Henderson, February 12 2015