Chocolate is a substance derived from the beans of the Coco tree Theobroma cacao, indigenous to the Americas and used by the Amerindians since at least 1100BC. The name itself is taken from the Aztec word xocolatl ("bitter water"), which was - broadly - drinking chocolate1 and used for a variety of ceremonial and leisure purposes. Ironically most of the world's chocolate production now seems to take place in West Africa.
As the Aztecs imply, chocolate is a naturally bitter substance that requires substantial processing even to be edible - normally including fermentation and roasting. Even then it remains fairly bitter and is a savoury condiment in most native American styles of cooking. The cocoa bean was so significant to the Aztecs as to form a viable currency.
Once adopted by Europeans, chocolate progressed from a drink to a solid foodstuff and in the process switched from a bitter, savoury product to a primarily sweet one. Modern, sweet chocolate tends to involve large quantities of sugar and frequently vegetable fat and other ingredients depending on location2. In general, the darker the chocolate the less sweet it will be and the higher the concentration of bitter coco solids will be found in it. Chocolate has also re-emerged as a drink - the sweetened form known as "hot chocolate" or "drinking chocolate" and the less sweetened form often called "coco" or "cocoa".
Common forms include:
- Baking chocolate: hard, dark chocolate with a high percentage of coco solids by mass.
- Sweet chocolate: hard chocolate with added sugar and varying quantities of vegetable fat.
- Milk chocolate: similar to sweet chocolate, but with milk or milk powder added to the mix.
- White chocolate3: chocolate containing the fatty portion of the coco bean (coco butter) but little or none of the coco solids. Usually contains milk as well. Very low in alkaloids by comparison to other blends.
- Drinking chocolate/cocoa: as above
Even within these, there are variations as manufacturers blend for a different texture or a higher (or lower) melting point or for regional tastes (e.g. US manufacturers use slightly soured milk in their milk chocolate, giving it a noticably different flavour from that made in the UK). Other substances may also be blended into the chocolate or enrobed with it to make snack bars of various kinds.
Chocolate is also frequently used as a coating or ingredient in other dishes - normally desserts, although some European cooks have reverted to using it as a savoury seasoning in the Amerindian fashion.
The high quantities of sugar in modern mass market chocolate and chocolate snack bars make them an ideal concentrated energy source for anyone in a climate cold enough to keep it solid - for this reason it often ends up in modern iron rations in one form or another.
Chocolate contains significant quantities of alakaloids - notably theobromine - usually in proportion to their coco solid content. These are mildly psychoactive in humans and have minor but noticable physiological effects on them, but can be toxic to some animals (such as dogs and cats) at relatively low doses. The effects of the assorted alkaloids may well play a part in the aboriginal ceremonial uses of chocolate drinks - and almost certainly have a part in chocolate's place in the human courtship process.
Game and Story Use
- The usual humour value is in having an NPC whose species is unusually vulnerable to theobromine - either its psychoactive effects or its pysiological ones. For cliche points, make the NPC female and therefore "obliged" to eat chocolate.
- Traditionally an important morale booster in wartime - and even a currency on a par with cigarrettes in many POW camps, prisons, etc.. Legend has it that when the Atlantic Conveyor went down in the Falklands War, headquarters were most alarmed about the loss of the helicopters, but the men on the ground were most horrified to discover that a significant portion of the force's chocolate supply had been destroyed.
- A significant trade good in many eras, suitable for use as treasure.