Cocoa pod

Cocoa pod on a dark wooden table. (Photo: Shutterstock)

Carol O'Meara, Colorado State University Extension

Carol O’Meara, Colorado State University Extension

LONGMONT – Diamonds and flowers are nice, wine and sweet words can woo, but if you’re intent on showing your special someone the depth of your love, gift them a gift worthy of gods. This Valentine’s Day, celebrate your passion with the plant that’s been revered for over 5,000 years: chocolate.

Theobroma cacao, the cacao plant, dates back to Mesoamerica where it was cultivated by Aztec, Mayan, and Olmec peoples. Native to central and South America the tree sports tiny, rice-sized blossoms on its trunk and main branches that attract a tiny midge for pollination. And though the plant does its best to entice the gnat-sized pollinator, only three out of a thousand flowers gets lucky.

These fertilized flowers produce large fruits, called pods, which contain the coveted cacao seeds. Fruit and flowers are born throughout the year making harvest an ongoing event, with two or more heavier ‘flushes’ of pods. Waiting to collect the seeds is a labor of patience, not a flash in the pan: from flower to ripe fruit takes six months.

The cleaned, roasted seeds are the source of the tasty treat, which was first cultivated as a drink or pulverized and used in gruel and other dry goods. So cherished by the ancient Mesoamerican cultures that cacao was considered a drink of the gods and used as currency.

The bitter flavor was not appreciated by the Europeans who first explored the region; rather, it was its use as money that captured their attention. Seizing containers carrying the seeds, they brought them back to Europe where they were at first ignored, then prized once sugar was added instead of chili pepper. With this it became a popular drink.

At first only nobles enjoyed chocolate, but with an increase in production, soon most people had access to the frothy beverage. In 1828 a revolution in chocolate making occurred when Conrad J. van Houten, a Dutch chocolatier, invented a hydraulic press that squeezed the fat from the bean. The result was “cake” cocoa that could be powderized. For this, van Houton should be canonized.

This cocoa powder opened up whole new avenues for enjoying chocolate, and in 1849 Englishman Joseph Storrs Fry mixed it with sugar and added the cocoa butter back in to create a solid chocolate candy. For this, Fry also should be elevated to Saint.

Today, retail sales of chocolate were $98.2 billion dollars in 2016 with Switzerland leading per capita consumption at 8.8 kilograms per person per year (the U.S. is ranked 5 at 5.5 kilograms). This is not to say they lead the world in wooing, because there’s always the per capita consumption of wine. The top honors for that seem to be Vatican City at 54.26 liters per person, according to Forbes, but it’s probably not for the same purpose. Second to them is the country of Andorra.

But we were talking about chocolate. Considered a stimulant, health food, and aphrodisiac, chocolate has chemical properties researchers have isolated in search of support for those notions. It contains small amounts of caffeine, theobromine, and phenylethylamine, stimulants that contribute to the boost you feel after eating it. Anandamide is also present, which can produce a fleeting sense of well-being and craving for chocolate. It combines with other substances in cocoa that may delay its breakdown in the body, thus prolonging the feel-good sensation of the chocolate. Research on that is on-going.

Consider giving chocolate for Valentine’s Day, but don’t stop there; you needn’t be a lover to enjoy it. Like Sandra J. Dykes extolls: “forget love- I’d rather fall in chocolate!” it’s not just for romance.

By Carol O’Meara, Colorado State University Extension. Colorado State University Extension, together with Boulder County Parks and Open Space, provides unbiased, research-based information about consumer and family issues, horticulture, natural resources, agriculture and 4-H youth development. For more information contact Colorado State University Extension at the Boulder County Fairgrounds, 9595 Nelson Rd., Box B, Longmont, 303.678.6238, e-mail comeara@bouldercounty.org or visit ext.colostate.edu/boulder.