Chocolate: A sweet Jewish tale

Moment Magazine’s new issue has a sweet Jewish tale about chocolate.

While I love bittersweet dark chocolate, it has been on my trips to Barcelona that I found a great chocolate shop offering all sorts of chocolate flavors, including chile!

Our dear friends in that city end every dinner with the bringing out of the “Box of Chocolate,” filled with bars of many kinds. What could be better? A great meal, wonderful friends AND chocolate!

But the Jewish role in chocolate started a long time ago, as detailed in the Moment article.

Convinced he would encounter Jewish traders on his 1492 journey, Christopher Columbus brought along a Jew as a Hebrew interpreter. Although he met no Jews in the New World, he did find oddly shaped “almonds” that were highly valued by the natives—cacao beans.

It was conquistador Hernán Cortés who carried the art of making the Aztecs’ xocolatl, or “bitter water,” to Spain. Considered a sacred drink associated with fertility, chocolate was served cold and flavored with chilies. The Aztec emperor Montezuma was said to have downed many a golden goblet of the drink each day, especially before visiting his wives.

The Spanish nobility swooned over the aphrodisiac and revitalizing qualities of chocolate, but disliked its bitterness. To appease European taste buds, it was loaded with sugar and later blended with hot milk. A delectable drink for the wealthy was born.

The story meshes with the forced conversion to Catholicism and expulsion of the Jews of Spain and Portugal.

“When the Jews left, they took with them knowledge of how to make chocolate and a sense of its value,” says Celia Shapiro, co-author of “Chocolate: History, Culture, and Heritage.”

“Jewish traders introduced chocolate to France,” adds Joan Nathan, author of the upcoming “In Search of the Food of the Jews of France.” One center of Jewish chocolate-making was Bayonne, where, as the legend goes, Jewish settlers managed to convince church authorities that chocolate was “kosher” for Lent.

The Spanish and Portuguese refugees also settled in the Netherlands. The Dutch West India Company (with its Jewish investors) wanted to encourage the Diaspora’s international trade, and Jewish merchants settled all over the New World.

Success was not universally met with joy and resulted in French discriminatory laws and the export of the Inquisition to the colonies. Jews fled from Spanish and Portuguese colonies to Dutch territory.

Aaron Lopez, an influential merchant and cacao trader, was the first Jew to be naturalized in British Massachusetts. A fervent supporter of the American Revolution, Lopez lamented the fact that Jews, struggling with provision shortages during the upheaval while attempting to keep kosher, were “forced to subsist on chocolate and coffee.”

The story continues with European “chocolate houses,” the creation of the Sacher Torte by a teenage Viennese Jewish apprentice chef, powdered chocolate, the mass-produced chocolate bar, opening of Israel’s Elite candy company by a Latvian immigrant, the rise of Barton’s (which Tracing the Tribe covered previously) and its chocolate almond kisses, kosher chocolates from non-Jewish companies (Godiva, Ghiradelli) and chocolate matzoh.

It lists such Jewish American chocolatiers as Robert Steinberg of Scharffen Berger, truffle queen Alice Medrich, Charles Chocolates; and Israel’s Max Brenner and his now international chain.

Read the complete article at the link above.

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