Yes, it’s official: Chocolate makes us happy! A study of American women in 1996 showed that the various elements present in chocolate trigger the release of endorphins in the brain. Among these are phenylethylamine which is the same chemical the brain produces when we fall in love; and dopamine, a natural pain-killer.
So, a pain-killer that tastes great and makes you fall in love. What’s not to like?
Chocolate has been around since at least 450 BC but not in the form in which we know it today. For 95 per cent of its life chocolate was consumed as a drink. It originated in Mexico where the seeds of the cacao tree or possibly the pith which surrounds them were crushed and mixed with water and chillies. It was said to give men strength, endurance and power. There is some evidence suggesting that the Aztecs gave a last cup of chocolate to their sacrificial victims before they were slaughtered, which must have cheered them up no end. It was even used as a currency.
It was Christopher Columbus who originally brought chocolate from the Americas back to Spain where it was met with complete disinterest.
“A bitter drink suitable for pigs,” was one comment.
It was only after Hernando Cortes bumped into (and then bumped off) the Aztec Emperor Montezuma that he urged the Spanish to try again. Eventually, someone decided to add sugar or honey to disguise the bitter taste and it became an instant success.
Soon fashionable chocolate houses would spring up in Madrid, Paris, Amsterdam, London and across the water in Boston. A sort of early chocolate version of Starbucks.
In 1828, Conrad van Houten, a Dutch chemist discovered a way to crush the cacao beans and remove the bitter alkaloids. ‘Dutch chocolate’ became a huge success. It was even paid to early American soldiers as part of their salary.
In England, the leading chocolate producer was J.S. Fry. In 1847, while pottering around his workshop Joseph Fry discovered that the addition of cocoa butter to the ground powder produced chocolate that could be moulded into the shape of a bar.
Thus the modern chocolate bar was born.
There are rumours that it was actually Mrs Fry, rather than her husband, who stumbled upon this secret but being England in the 19th century her husband took all the credit. In any case with the introduction of Fry’s Chocolate Cream and, in 1873, the world’s first chocolate Easter egg, the future of chocolate – and the Fry family’s fortune – was assured.
In 1919, J.S Fry merged with a small company called Cadbury. Together they built a large factory to the south of Birmingham and a new model town which they named Bournville. Both Fry and Cadbury were devout Quakers and they evidently decided that the workers, housed in their gleaming new town had enough happiness with their daily chocolate ration. This may explain why, even today, Bournville remains the only sizeable town in Britain without a pub.
So, as you guiltily break open your chocolate bar, you may say a small word of thanks to Joseph Fry. Or possibly to his missus.