by Tamar Jacobs


Stand in front of the glass case at Moore's Candies up on Pinewood Avenue and try to decide between a luscious double chocolate and a white chocolate kahlua truffle. Head downtown to Lexington Market and try to figure out which of the treats offered by Rheb's Homemade Candies will best make your Valentine swoon -the decadent dark chocolate raspberry cream or the buttery milk chocolate molasses sponge?

It's darned near impossible to leave without one of everything. Sure, both of these Baltimore institutions offer treats of the non-chocolate variety, like Rheb's coconut bon-bon, or Moore's peanut brittle, but really, sitting on a tray next to anything with a chocolate pedigree, could they possibly be expected to put up a fair fight?

Whether dark, milk, or bittersweet, all chocolate starts with cacao beans. After they are thwacked from their pod with a machete, separated from their pulp, fermented for depth of flavor, and dried in the sun, they are roasted and processed. The products made with them differ in the percentage of cacao they contain.

The bare minimum required by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is 15% cacao solids for a dark chocolate product, and 10% for milk chocolate, though the recent trend towards deep, dark, designer chocolate means that bars can be found on the shelf with up to 80% cacao solids. Since it contains only cocoa butter, and no cacao solids at all, some purists refuse even to consider the white variety chocolate! Baking chocolate (bittersweet or unsweetened) is a different ball game entirely. Because its purpose is to add the chocolate flavor to sweetened baked products it contains little sugar and lots of cacao solids.

Archaeologists have found extensive evidence that cacao was central to ancient cultures like the Maya and Aztec. Aztec warriors drank it before going to war, and Montezuma II drank it for strength before paying a visit to his harem. The Mayan people created the cold, frothy, bitter drink often served in golden goblets exclusively to the king and nobility around 300 A.D. One such goblet, etched with the Mayan hieroglyph for chocolate, was discovered in 1984 in Rio Azul, Guatemala. Amazingly the cup still held traces of chocolate.

There was no sugar added to these ancient drinks and they would surely shock the taste buds of a modern day chocolate devotee. Other flavorings were used back then to accentuate its taste, like chili peppers and flower petals. The name for this drink, xocolatl, combined the Aztec words for "bitter" and "water," and evolved phonetically into the word we use today: chocolate.

When Christopher Columbus was presented with gifts by the Aztec people on the island of Guanaja, he paid much more attention to the copper and textiles than to what he referred to as: "Almonds which they use as money, and from which they make a drink."

It wasn't until seventeen years later, when Hernan CortÈs came looking for El Dorado, that a European saw the potential for the cacao bean. Receiving a gift of chocolate from Montezuma, CortÈs called it "The divine drink which builds up resistance and fights fatigue. A cup of this precious drink permits a man to walk for a whole day without food."

Soon, CortÈs was also calling it "liquid gold," gleefully conscious that it served as both a form of currency and a cherished commodity all in one. He spent the next decade establishing Spanish cacao plantations throughout the Caribbean.

On it's way through Spain and into other European countries, sugar was added to chocolate and the sweetened product caught on like wildfire. "Chocolate Houses" popped up at the rate of a modern day Starbucks. When Coenraad Van Houten, a Dutch chemist, invented the hydraulic press in 1828, he developed the process for pressing the cocoa butter out of the chocolate liquor, which made cocoa powder that was drier and easier to pulverize, and eliminated the unappetizingly greasy pools of chocolate solids that tended float on top of the drink. Cocoa powder, proved to be an exciting product.

Entrepreneurs all over Europe feverishly brainstormed over what to do with this tasty stuff. Joseph Fry & Sons, a chocolate manufacturer in England, found a way to blend the cocoa butter back into the defatted cocoa powder, thereby creating a substance that could be pressed into a mold. Thus the chocolate bar was born, and the balance shifted from drinking chocolate to eating chocolate.

John Cadbury was a savvy businessman who capitalized on the increasingly romantic associations attached to chocolate. In 1868 he released the first ever heart-shaped box of Valentine's Day chocolates. Constructed elaborately with velvet and mirrors, adorned with gilded pictures of cherubs and lambs, these boxes were coveted even after the chocolates inside of them were long gone. The idea stuck, and today chocolate and Valentine's Day are inextricably linked. Unfortunately, the history of cacao production isn't as sweet as a gilded box of Cadbury chocolates.

One of the reasons that CortÈz was so thrilled by the idea of setting up cacao plantations was because he realized what a boon slave labor would prove to his business. He purchased slaves with the same cacao beans that he shipped overseas. When the enterprise of cacao production spread, so did the exploitation of slaves. The African slave trade boomed during these years, exploiting hundreds of thousands of people.

Unfortunately, the link between chocolate production and slavery didn't dissipate with the Emancipation Proclamation. Even today, the volatility of global markets puts small farmers (more than half of the entire world's cocoa comes from West Africa) at a disadvantage, as the unregulated market means that the price paid for a ton of cocoa can vary by thousands of dollars within just a few years. In their struggle to stay afloat, some of these small, impoverished farmers resort to buying children as slaves to help harvest cacao.

The Fair Trade movement is a response to this terrifying situation. Today, Fair Trade seeks to economically empower small producers and farmers. The organization employs a product certification system by which conscientious consumers can rest easy knowing that the Fair Trade sticker on the chocolate bar in their shopping cart indicates that it was produced without exploitation. Fair Trade has caught on quickly, as more and more people become aware of the route their food travels to get to the market and table. Certification stickers grace the packages of not just chocolate, but coffee, spices, rice, tea, honey, and a growing list of others products.

Aside from buying Fair Trade chocolate, we Baltimoreans are lucky to have another way to use our buying power responsibly, while simultaneously reveling in our chocolate addictions. February eighth will bring the sixteenth annual "Chocolate Affair" to Raven's Stadium. With all of the proceeds going to Health Care for the Homeless, The Chocolate Affair will be a fabulous opportunity to enjoy luscious chocolate treats from 50 local restaurants, caterers and chocolatiers (Not to mention those icy chocolate Martinis!) while supporting the organization that provides 9,000 homeless men women and children with health care annually.

Your admission offers you the opportunity to hobnob with local celebrities, to bid in live and silent auctions for items like a dinner party for ten at Bonefish Grill, or a Bahamian cruise. With live steel-drum performances by "Tropical Heat," The Chocolate Affair promises to be a party not to be missed.

As Valentine's Day approaches, there is no better time to splurge on the luscious chocolate resources here in our own Charm City. And why not? As Katherine Hepburn once said: "Life without chocolate is no life at all."

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