The Tree of the Gods

There are few foods that set your blood on fire, and chocolate is one of them. It was invented by the gods for humans to enjoy it. Is that the reason why its history of fights, passion, love and hate is now translated into technical language? Identities, production processes, chocolate tasting techniques… terms which try to explain what can’t actually be explained when you feel a piece of good chocolate in your mouth. But behind this language, there are plots of land, men and women that transform cacao beans in another story altogether, where poetry and reality intermingle. This is a long journey that begins at the tree, and what is always awaiting you at the end is pure pleasure.

The word chocolate refers back to the history of this product. Chocolate is made of cacao, which grows on the cacao tree, a species of mythological and divine origin for Mochicas, Incas, Mayas, Aztecs and other cultures. Its fruit is not just any fruit, as the scientific name of the tree indicates: Theobroma Cacao, meaning “food of the gods”. The blend of cacao and water was called xocoatl in Aztec.

The Theobroma Cacao 

Theobroma Cacao is a tree which starts blooming when it is five years old and reaches full productivity by the time it is ten. It has an average life span of 25 to 30 years. When you open its fruit, the cacao pod, you will find about 25 to 50 seeds, united by some kind of placenta. The tree requires constant humidity along with an annual average temperature of 25°C, conditions you find in its original birthplace. And just like in the area of wine, there are different grape varieties, you can identify cacao varietals and ecotypes in various Peruvian regions, such as Chuncho cacao, white Piuran, Fortunato and Peruvian National cacao.

Every day, researchers make new findings about its genetic composition and find new cacao varieties. Each of them has its own distinct characteristics and nuances which you can discover during cacao tasting. Also, there are chocolates which experts call “hacienda chocolates”, as they come from small, precisely identified plantations, and “terroir” chocolates, chocolates of unique origin whose specific flavor is due to the plot of land where the cacao was grown. These chocolates are mixed, and sometimes other ingredients are added, such as Andean fruit, spices and even salts, which are reminiscent of the first original cacao blends which included neither milk nor sugar.

The Story of Cacao

There has been a lot of debate about where this plant grew for the first time, but recent studies accept its South American, specifically Orinoco-Amazonian, origin, as it was from these regions that it spread towards Central America, where it was used most extensively, first as a ceremonial, then as a popular beverage. It was so highly esteemed by the Prehispanic cultures that they attributed it with worldly values: They turned it into their money and considered it a food for the senses.To enhance its aphrodisiac effects, they heated the seeds in the sun until they started “sweating” and then ground them. But they never forgot its  divine qualities.

Cocoa was always surrounded by rituals, as things as important as fertility, purification, life and love depended on its fruit. The cocoa drink, whipped and hot, was the symbol of the heart and the blood, elements which maintained the cosmic balance. Once it was prepared, the first one to drink it was the local lord. Proof of this are the gold necklaces with beads shaped like cocoa pods which were found in the tomb of the Lord of Sipán, head of the pre-Incan Mochica civilization (700 BC). This custom of drinking cocoa was adopted by all the powerful people in the region, but later, almost democratically, it was distributed among the mortals.

Many centuries later, with the Spanish conquest, cocoa crossed the oceans and was one of the first examples of authentic fusion. The Spanish added spices like vanilla and cinnamon to the original recipe. However, they tried to extinguish its spiritual flame by transforming cups of hot chocolate into the drink of bourgeois celebrations.

The church became aware of the phenomenon as well, and although great part of the dissemination of cocoa is due to nuns, the church initially tried to prohibit it in fasting periods. Yet, the papal bulls were far weaker than desire, and they couldn’t prevent the flock of the faithful from drinking cocoa. The solution to the conflict was that chocolate was permitted even during mass, because the idea of banning it from religious precincts left the places of worship nearly empty. Praying, the European aristocrats discovered the noble genes of cocoa from far-away places, and they adored this delicious potion. And while it was thanks to the Jesuits that chocolate crossed the Pyrenees, it was Anne of Austria, Louis XIII’s wife, who gave it an aura of glamour and revived its erotic mission, creating a court full of addicts to this aphrodisiac. From there on, chocolate undertook a long journey up to the present day.

Recently, chocolate has been part of a movement that uses cooking as its social weapon. In Peru, in vast regions where a few years ago, people grew coca and violence was part of everyday life, cocoa has now become one of the most important agricultural products: It is the basis of people’s livelihoods, the present and future of their professional lives, their hope, and much more. This is why it was recently named one of Peru’s flagship products and is now represented on the 1-Sol coin.

This cocoa makes the farmers proud, because Peruvian cocoa, whenever it participates in competitions, comes back home decorated with medals. These awards are highly significant, as they pay tribute to the work of women and men who allow this cocoa to be transformed into a variety of products including a type of chocolate of unique flavor.

So with every bite, the consumption of Theobroma Cacao increases, this substance which produces effects similar to the ones you feel when you fall in love, because this is what cocoa is all about: It is the food of the gods made for the mortals’ pleasure. I will now propose you a very different kind of journey which will take you through jungles, rivers and ancient cities. We will follow the routes of Peruvian cocoa, tasting good chocolate along the way, and I’m sure you will fall in love with it just as I did.

Raquel Rosemberg

Raquel Rosemberg
Academy Chair | South America (South)

Raquel Rosemberg was born in Buenos Aires, where she is still living. She is a great lover of flavors without limits nor nationalities, and chocolate occupies a very special place among her passions. Raquel has a degree in Social Communication and is a gastronomy and travel journalist, writing for several Argentinian and international media such as Ollas & Sartenes and Viajes, both supplements of the newspaper Clarín. She shares her experiences in her blog:, whose name was inspired by her first book about food and drinks in film noir, published by the Paidós publishing house.