In its early days chocolate was an extremely rich beverage. It contained a fatty substance known as cacao butter which tended to rise to the top, where it would float in unappetising greasy pools. Manufacturers overcame this to some extent by adding starchy substances to absorb the fat – a process similar to the Aztec tradition of adding ground maize.
Manufacturers also tried unsuccessfully for years to devise a way of separating out the greasy cacao butter. Breakthrough came in 1828 when, after years of trial and error, a Dutch chemist named Coenraad Van Houten patented a new and extremely efficient hydraulic press. His machine was able to extract about 50% of the butter present in the “liquor” (the paste produced after grinding the beans brackets), leaving behind a refined, brittle, cake–like residue that could then be pulverised to a fine powder.
Not satisfied, Van Houten went one step further. He treated the powder with alkaline salts in order to improve the ease with which it could be mixed with water. The process, which came to be known as “Dutching”, also darkened the colour of the chocolate and lightened the flavour – a curious anomaly since plain chocolate is usually assumed to have a stronger flavour. Today many people believe they prefer Dutch chocolate because of its strong flavour, but it may simply be the colour that attracts them.
Van Houten’s inexhaustible patience revolutionised the chocolate industry, leading to the manufacture of what we know now as cocoa powder, which in Van Houten’s time was called “cocoa essence”. His work also led to a complete improvement within the industry. Van Houten sold his rights to his machine 10 years after he took out the patent, bringing it into general use.
Among the first customers were the Frys and the Cadburys, every eager to outdo each other. Both firms were quick to enter the cocoa essence market, actively promoting the product’s purity and ease of preparation. The oldest style starch–based products were classified as adulterated, resulting in several fears legal battles between rival firms. Van Houten’s press also initiated the industry’s next step in gearing up – the large-scale production of chocolate as confectionery.
Having separated out the butter from the bean, the industry was left with the question of what to do with it – it was certainly too good to waste. What happened was that somehow one of the cocoa manufacturers hit upon the idea of melting the cacao butter and combining it with a blend of ground cacao beans and sugar. The resulting mixture was a smooth and malleable paste that tolerated the added sugar without becoming gritty; the fat helped to dissolve it. The paste was also thin enough to be poured into a mould and cast, and it is from this concept that “eating chocolate” was developed.
The Fry family claimed to have been the first to market the new product. Reflecting the current popularity of French style products, they named the bars “Chocolat Délicieux à Manger” and exhibited them at a trade fair in Birmingham in 1849. The bars were an overnight success, and eating chocolate became very popular.
As a result of the new craze the price of cocoa butter rocketed and eating chocolate became an expensive luxury product popular with the elite of society. Meanwhile cocoa was relegated to the lower classes.
Images reproduced from exhibits.mannlib.cornell.edu, nl.wikipedia.org and cadbury.com
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