Love That Chocolate…
Love that chocolate? Here we are in February also known as a chocolate month and the month of love. How did this association happen and what should we know about the widespread current passion for chocolate? These are some of the questions I’ll explore in February’s blogs and re-visit some writings on the topic, for example, Carol Off’s book Bitter Chocolate, written in 2007. She states: “The story of chocolate has a lot to do with what is fair” (p. 199).
Chocolate holds an important place in British Columbia food history. This year Vancouver is holding its 10th Hot Chocolate Festival (hotchocolatefest.com). The website boasts that “when it launched in 2011, The Vancouver Hot Chocolate Festival was the first city-wide festival of its kind in the world.” The Festival is promoted as a way to shake off the “damp and gloomy days of a Westcoast winter.” Its motto is: “ Chocolate makes you happy.” The Festival participants are food and beverage outlets that create special chocolate treats for people to enjoy. Proceeds from the venture support local charities.
Every time I visit Victoria, I seek out a little piece of British Columbia history with a visit to Rogers’ Chocolates at 913 Government Street. Even if I don’t buy chocolate, it is always a treat to visit the 1903 heritage store to revel in the beautiful old fixtures, gold and glass of the establishment and to check out the latest creations of the current chocolatier
The Rogers’ Chocolates website (rogerschocolates.com) says Charles Rogers, the son of a Massachusetts farmer founded the company. He arrived in Victoria in 1885, opened a greengrocer’s shop on Government Street and sold chocolates imported from San Francisco. He soon found such high demand for the chocolates that he and wife Leah Morrison decided to make their own chocolates. His first and original creation, the Victoria Cream “quickly became a local favourite and thus began his career as Canada’s first chocolatier.”
Rogers’ Chocolates website states that the company today is owned and operated by local families committed to using all fair trade chocolate in their products (fairtradecertified.org). A newspaper article from 2013 indicates the company operates with shareholders and a Board of Governors and strives to be innovative and fresh at the same time as having a committed and loyal customer-community. [i]
When Charles Rogers started producing his chocolates, he was probably not the least concerned about fair trade in chocolate but 125 years later, fair trade is a central concern for consumers and producers. The book Bitter Chocolate[ii] took a comprehensive look at the history of chocolate and the meaning of fairness in the industry. Author Carol Off visited the cacao plantations of West Africa, exposed the indentured labour of young children in the plantations and highlighted the irony of poor developing-world children harvesting cacao pods and never tasting the sweet chocolate confections that developed-world children would enjoy because of their labours. This irony she characterizes as a “vast distance…between the hand that picks the cocoa and the hand that reaches for the chocolate bar” (p. 8). “For thousands of years, the chocolate cravings of an elite have been satisfied by the hard labour of an underclass” (p. 10).
The cacao tree (theobroma) grows in a band around the world that hugs the equator and thrives in the right conditions of temperature and moisture. Its story began as part of Mayan culture in the first and second centuries AD in present day Mexico. Cocoa was used to create a drinkable liquid often associated with religious rituals and found its way into savoury gravies and stews. The invading Spaniards in the 1500s were slow to realize the value of cocoa and it was likely the Spanish priests and monks who began to sweeten the beverage with honey to make it more suited to European tastes. It was also likely the priests and monks who introduced chocolate to Europe. Chocolate grew in popularity because of health claims associated with its use. The Spaniards regarded it as a drug, believing it to be a hallucinogen or aphrodisiac. Some physicians believed it had a calming effect and helped relieve a fever, while others saw it as a pick-me-up.
During the enlightenment era of the late 1600s to early 1800s, cocoa or chocolate houses sprang up in Europe along with coffee houses and salons as public places where philosophy, science and new ideas were debated and discussed. European demand for cocoa overwhelmed the Central America growing region. Cocoa production relied on a triangular trade system that was an arrangement among merchants and tycoons who shipped products ranging from weapons to salt cod to Africa, picked up human cargo bound for America where slaves would be traded for agricultural products to be shipped back to Europe. The Africans would then be put to work raising more produce such as sugar, rum, cocoa and cotton for European factories and markets.
By the mid 1800s the cocoa plantations of the Caribbean and Central America were depleted and in decline. The Portuguese transported trees to their colony of Angola in Africa. The Gold Coast and the Ivory Coast of West Africa became the new productive areas for cocoa. Off (2007) writes: “by the end of the 1990s a small handful of foreign firms controlled almost all of Cote d’Ivoire’s cocoa production. The Belgian and Swiss giants of Barry Callebaut and Nestle and the American food conglomerates of Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland cornered world markets becoming suppliers to the European and US manufacturers that had run the business from the previous century”(p. 117). This control coincided with exploitation of child labour and low financial returns to the farmers.
Books like Bitter Chocolate and news reports of the time showed that there is little love or happiness associated with farming the cocoa trees. So how do we come to associate these good feelings with chocolate in our current era in British Columbia? Do we really want to maintain the vast distance between the hand that picks the cocoa and the hand that reaches for the chocolate bar? Movements have been afoot since 2007 to reduce that distance. Next time I will look at another place chocolate has in BC food history and other British Columbia chocolate companies.
[ii] Off, Carol (2007). Bitter chocolate, investigating the dark side of the world’s most seductive sweet. Toronto: Vintage Canada/Random House.