Chocolate…it’s a treat, it’s a bean, it’s a PLANT?

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Chocolate is not just a sweet glorious ray of edible
sunshine, Chocolate IS A PLANT!  It’s
been a 3,000 year journey from the biological roots of chocolate, to today’s
wild chocolate innovations….

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When Montezuma met the Spanish conquistadores in 1519, he intended to overwhelm them with a lavish display of royal hospitality.  To impress, the emperor of six million people brought out fifty golden jugs of one of his most potent weapons – chocolate.  However, what he served to the awed Spanish was not at all like the sweet chocolate we enjoy today. The cacao plant (Theobroma Cacao) is native to the Amazon region, and Montezuma was serving up an elite tradition of chocolate that had begun 3,000 years before the Spanish arrival.  The Spanish experienced a drink made of the beans of the cacao pod, ground and mixed with water, vanilla, chile, and cornmeal, which had been poured back and forth at a height to create an enticing, bitter, melt-in-your-mouth froth.  In an instant, the global obsession with chocolate was born.

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Cacao seedpods

Chocolate can now be found anywhere in the world, and it’s easy to forget that under the bright wrappers and diverse flavors, chocolate comes from a plant with a very powerful chemical profile.  The cacao tree and its precious seedpods only grow in equatorial regions of the world, and produce a bean that is much more than just tasty.  Cacao beans are psychoactive, with multiple compounds capable of stimulating the production of neurotransmitters in the brain.  Through their bitter and frothy beverage, Mesoamericans were the first to enjoy the stimulating effects of Theobromine, a chemical in cacao that is very similar to caffeine.  Theobromine increases blood flow, inducing a feeling of mental alertness, vigor, and overall well-being. On top of this dynamic duo, cacao also has Tryptophan and Phenylethylamine, among many other compoundsTryptophan assists in the creation of the “feel-good” neurotransmitter Serotonin.  Phenylethylamine assists with the creation of another happiness-inducing neurotransmitter, Dopamine.  These delightful neurotransmitters, plus a surprising number of antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds, can help explain humankind’s passionate three-thousand-year love affair with chocolate.

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Cacao beans

The cacao beans that furnish this phytochemical feast are actually quite challenging to grow, and need just the right conditions and lots of care to fight the diseases and pests that typically attack them.  There are three main varieties of cacao bean available today, and within each variety there are several, often  genetically different, hybrid strains.  Relatively hardy Forestera beans make up 85 percent of the world’s chocolate.  Most prized, rare, and delicate are Criollo beans, which provide 3% of the world’s chocolate.  The hybrid of Forestera and Criollo is known as Trinitario, which was created in the 18th century when a hurricane nearly caused the Criollo variety to go extinct.  Although Criollo plants are not productive on a scale that can meet global demand, they produce flavors and aromas that are more complex and rich.  Much like wine, Criollo can be described as having notes of fruit, tobacco, or caramel.  Criollo was the preferred variety of the Aztec and Maya, and most likely the one that the Spanish enjoyed as part of Montezuma’s hospitality.

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Go to the supermarket today, and in the candy aisle you will see an array of chocolate worthy of an Aztec Emperor.  If you wish, you can pay a kingly fortune for the best of it  — the Guinness World Record holder is about 650 dollars for ONE 80-gram bar made of some of the rarest beans on earth! The West African nation of Cote d’Ivoire  produces 2/5ths of the worlds Forestera.  By contrast, most Criollo beans today come from small farms in Venezuela or Madagascar.  Since the very best beans are so rare and precious, the cost for the finest chocolate in the world can be incredibly high.  The world record holder, “La Chuorsa,” is put out by Swiss Chocolatier Attimo, using beans from a small 400 year old family farm in Venezuela.  To add to the flavor profile (and price) even further, it is enhanced with orange flavor and another expensive and rare ingredient, saffron.  If 650 dollars for one bar is a bit rich for your blood, there are other adventures in chocolate flavors out there.  For a mere 250 dollars you can purchase a chocolate truffle with a genuine fungus truffle inside!  Compartes Chocolates in California gets high ratings for creativity with less expensive bars of flavors like “Avocado & Chips,” “Fruity Pebbles,” and “Donuts and Coffee.”  An Aztec Emperor would surely recoil at the sweet, milky flavors of chocolate today, but that is the beauty in the biology of chocolate.  Cacao’s pleasing array of phytochemicals and rich flavors practically guarantee an enjoyable experience.  Whether taken bitter by an emperor or sweet by an excited trick-or-treater, on the molecular level, chocolate is sure to satisfy your brain and not just your sweet tooth.  


An Introduction to the Science of Chocolate
A General history of Chocolate
The different types of Cacao
Africa and the Global Cocoa Trade
Farmer harvesting, fermenting and roasting Cacao beans
The Neurochemistry of Chocolate
Scientific Paper on the Health Benefits of Chocolate
Attimo Chocolate Company
Compartes Chocolate Company
Strange Chocolate Flavors from Around the World

Pumpkin Spice – The Bitter Sweet Story

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Pumpkin Spice

Cinnamon, ginger, cloves and nutmeg.   This spice blend, known today as Pumpkin Spice, conjures up thoughts of wholesome fall fun – corn mazes, trick or treating, walking on crisp fall days and of course, that American fall favorite, pumpkin pie.  American people’s love for the pleasing, nostalgia-inducing taste of this spice blend means you can drink it as a beverage, eat it in baked goods from granola bars to Oreos, and even use it in soap, shampoo, and.. FISHING LURES? Pumpkin pie spice conjures memories that are wholesome and sweet, and people’s obsession with it often generates some good-humored mockery.  But what’s REALLY in that latte you’re enjoying?  The origin of pumpkin spice isn’t so sweet, but it’s definitely spicy!  About 500 years ago, the drive to obtain the spices in your pumpkin spice Cheerios was one of the most consequential moments in human history.  Your Thanksgiving pie comes with an incredible legacy –under that dollop of whipped cream is the beginning of the modern age, shocking levels of violence, and even the origin of The United States of America itself.

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Nutmeg in particular has a large slice of history’s pie.  In the European Middle Ages, exotic nutmeg was the ultimate status good, worth much more than its weight in gold.  People used it as an aphrodisiac, and it was thought especially good for warding off the plague, but no one had any idea where it came from.  One of the main reasons for all of the bold sailing voyages of the “European Age of Discovery” was to find the sources of the nutmeg that Europeans craved.   In the process, Europeans reached and began to colonize places as far-flung as The Americas and Australia, initiating the early modern age and laying the foundations for our current globalized world.  Nutmeg is native to a place called the Banda Archipelago, in Eastern Indonesia.  In the 1500’s, first the Portuguese, then the Dutch showed up there, seeking this spice that was more precious than gold. They were willing to do anything to secure it.

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Map of Eastern Archipelago, including Banda

The native people of Banda had been building their trading empire with Asia for centuries, and were wealthy and well organized, but they did not count on the lengths the Dutch would go to for profit.  To ensure a monopoly over the Nutmeg trade, the Dutch massacred almost the entire population of The Bandas, keeping only a few as slaves to work the nutmeg orchards.  This marked the start of centuries of deadly, often genocidal war between the Dutch and Indonesian people. The Dutch, however, were much more disturbed by the presence of some ragtag Englishmen who were claiming a tiny island in the archipelago, Run, for England.  Both the English and the Dutch in Indonesia were some of the toughest, wiliest, most skilled fighters either kingdom had to offer, and the fighting between them was brutal, often with many native Indonesian lives as collateral.  Giles Morton’s amazing book Nathaniel’s Nutmeg, describes the swashbuckling, and tremendously consequential, battles for The Bandas in detail.

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To maintain their monopoly, and shake those pesky English, the Dutch eventually offered an island-swap for peace.  In exchange for Run and the nutmeg monopoly, in 1667 the English were given a much less important and less profitable island held by the Dutch:  New Amsterdam, otherwise known as Manhattan Island.  New Amsterdam became New York, the English presence in North America was firmly established, and the rest, as they say, is history.  Eventually the Dutch monopoly on nutmeg was lost, and their hard-won empire in Indonesia began to crumble.  Nutmeg and its Indonesian cousin, cloves, became cheap enough to drink and eat every day.  New York, and indeed the entire country of the United States would have been vastly different – or never even existed at all — without pumpkin spice.  If someone makes fun of you for eating your 4th pumpkin spice pop tarts of the day, now you can let them know that it’s not trendy junk food, it’s one of the most important substances in modern history.

Pumpkin Spice in food
Pumpkin Spice in OTHER things
Nathaniel’s Nutmeg
Video Journey to the Spice Islands

Indigenous People Day: Irrigation Methods of Tenochtitlan

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El Templo Mayor in Tenochtitlan

Even today, 2,000 years after the heyday of the Roman civilization, tourists flock to Italy to see the iconic Roman Coliseum, the dignified Roman Forum, and the beautiful ruins of the city of Pompeii.  Although the average ancient Roman citizen enjoyed these treasures as well, the true pride of the city of Rome was its huge and efficient sewer system, its bountiful aqueducts, and its numerous public baths.   Roman civic engineering is world-famous today, and rightly so, but the Romans were not the only pre-modern civilization to reach incredible heights in the field of civic engineering.  The Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, which lies just under Mexico City today, supported almost half a million people in a clean, sustainable, easily defensible metropolis that surely would have knocked an ancient Roman’s sandals off!  Tenochtitlan was so innovative and yet so well-designed that the Spanish Conquistadores who witnessed the white-painted metropolis firsthand — studded with massive 60 meter tall pyramids, huge markets, and beautiful gardens fed by sophisticated aqueducts — thought that they were dreaming.

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European Map of Tenochtitlan circa 1524

There is an impression common in popular culture today that Native American groups lived in small, isolated, primitive groups, and did not build cities, or possess techniques of engineering or math.  In fact, the art of urban planning reached new heights from Bolivia all the way to The Pacific Northwest!  Although Tenochtitlan was certainly not the only major city of the Americas, it may have been the biggest, and, like Rome, it was a hub of trade and culture that attracted people from many different parts of their world.  The militaristic Romans surely would have been jealous of Tenochtitlan’s most defining feature:  it was a “floating city”  built in the middle of a large lake.  Much of the travel to and around the city was done by canoe, not on foot.  There were only three bridges connecting the city to the land, making the entire city an easily defensible fortress in times of war.  In the event of siege, the Aztecs had built in an even more astonishing feature: the city produced its own food in floating gardens known as chinampas, which could produce 6 to 7 crops a year.  Even the most hardened Roman Centurion’s jaw would be on the floor at the sheer genius of this seamless urban/military planning.

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Map of Tenochtitlan

About a thousand years ago, the Aztec people, who today prefer to be called the Mexica, were considered a rowdy, uncultured tribe among the many groups who populated the Valley of Mexico.  The fertile Valley of Mexico had already seen several urban civilizations come and go over the previous centuries, most impressively at the city of Teotihuacan, which boasts a pyramid as large as the ones at Giza. According to legend, it had been prophesized that the Mexica would build their great city on the site where they saw an eagle eating a snake on top of a cactus.  This image is now at the center of the Mexican flag, but when originally sighted it presented a problem: the sacred eagle was in the middle of a huge, marshy, mosquito-filled lake!  It’s more likely that their neighbors chased the Mexica to this undesirable real estate and trapped them there, but in any case the construction of this unlikely city is all the more incredible because it was the work of people we might call today “the underdogs.” 

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Surviving Mexica Chinampa

Undeterred, the Mexica got to work, and around 1376 began the long, laborious process of building their magnificent capital.   The chief architect and engineer of Tenochtitlan, Acamapichtli, had the innovative answer to building on marshland.  To anchor their buildings, the Mexica used 30 foot stakes of wood, driven into the ground and further surrounded by brick and rock.  This provided a surprisingly durable foundation for the city that eventually reached 14 square kilometers using this, and one other, technique.  The second technique, chinampas, created agriculturally productive land out of almost nothing.  By interweaving reeds and stakes and placing them on the rich, mucky bottom of the lake, the Mexica then piled on more soil until it reached the surface of the lake. This gradually created mats of vegetation that, as the roots grew in, became more and more stable and solid.  Over years, the mats, with their built-in irrigation system, became islands that could be planted and harvested up to 7 times per year, making it one of the most effective farming methods ever created.  Stocked with food, clean water, and stable ground on which to build, the city of Tenochtitlan boomed, and was larger (and much cleaner) than many major European cities when the Conquistadores arrived.  Although Tenochtitlan was razed and Mexico City built in its place, the wonders of the floating city prove without a doubt that the drive to innovate, engineer, experiment, and improve belongs to no one culture around the world, but to all of us.

To learn more:
Spanish Eyewitness
Engineering an Empire Documentary
In-depth paper on Hydrology and Chinampas
Life in Tenochtitlan

Are You a Coffee Head?

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It’s been said that Coffee is “the plant that domesticated humans.”  Although its exact origins are lost to history, we can be sure that coffee has had a meteoric rise in popularity around the world in the past 500 years.  In fact, coffee is second only to water as the world’s most consumed beverage!  Have you had YOUR coffee today?  Probably – in the US alone, people consume more than 450 million cups of coffee per day.

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It’s thought that coffee is native to the Keffa region of Ethiopia, where legend has it that a shepherd noticed his goats were more energetic than usual after eating the cherrylike fruit of the coffee bush.  A local religious teacher attempted to roast the beans and mix them with water, and when the resulting concoction proved VERY helpful at long religious ceremonies, the genie was out of the iced coffee bottle.  Strong trading  links across the Red Sea to Yemen saw coffee disembarking at the port of Mokha, and then across trade routes to the rest of the world.  Europeans developed a love for the drink in the 1600s, gathering in cafes to discuss events of the day over cup, after cup, after cup.  Some of Europe’s most influential scientific and philosophical thinkers were total coffee heads, and it’s been theorized that the caffeine boost of coffee, plus the community provided by the cafes, was a key factor in the European Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment!

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Not only was coffee very likely instrumental in the development of the modern world we all share today, it’s been theorized that the process of unlocking the flavors, and, of course, the caffeine, in coffee is one of all of humankind’s biggest shared projects.  However, the style of coffee you drink, when and where you drink it, and even who you drink it with can often be surprisingly different depending on where you are in the world.  Our relatively unified craving for coffee reveals an impressive diversity of tastes and habits that are evidence of some amazingly complex cultural and biological factors at play and is a fascinating illustration of the anthropological principle of “Unity in Diversity.”  No matter how you take it, it’s a fact that the world loves coffee!

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For example, if you are in Scandinavia, you may enjoy your coffee with small cubes of cheese curd soaking in it.  Before you say “gross!,” it might help to know that in Scandinavia, agriculture is difficult and people evolved a close relationship with dairy animals to survive.  In the harsh Arctic climate, a hot cup of coffee with an extra protein bonus in it can keep a person sustained all day. 

But if you are in Italy, it’s only the tourists who EVER drink cappuccino after 11am; this may have to do with the fact that many Italians are lactose-intolerant, and milky drinks may interfere with the digestion of food later in the day.

In Vietnam, you can enjoy a sweet coffee whipped with egg yolks rather than milk.  Vietnam has a major café culture, but in the Vietnam War, milk became scarce and innovative Vietnamese turned to egg yolk to replicate the smoothness of milk. 

If you are in the US, there’s a reason that the type of “normal coffee” you make in your office machine is known as “Americano” to the rest of the world.  It’s made with much more water than the tiny, concentrated espresso-based beverages enjoyed by most other countries.  It’s said that American GI’s did not like espresso but rather, missed the drip coffee they enjoyed at home, so grateful Italians obliged their “unsophisticated” taste by pouring espresso into water and the drink known around the world as the Americano was born!  Human ingenuity (and need for caffeine) knows no bounds.  What do you think the next coffee evolution will be? 

To learn more, grab a cup and enjoy these delightful videos:

The history of coffee culture.

Coffee’s journey around the world.

Unique coffees around the world today.