Chocolate Therapy

I’ve recently returned from a trip to Spain and am overwhelmed by the new food knowledge I’ve learned. With most travel stories, I find that emphasis is usually placed on the specific kinds of foods other cultures eat. However, what struck me the most about Spain was the manner in which the Spaniards ate. 

To start, their circadian rhythms seem to be shifted a couple hours forward than that of Americans. Dinnertime clocked in around nine at the earliest, and breakfast, even coffee spots, seldom opened before 8am (although you’d be hard pressed to find someone sipping a cappuccino before ten). I saw similar foods as I’ve seen in the US, but they were either consumed at different times or in different quantities, or prepared differently, even though the integrity of the food remained the same. Take, for example, cheese: breakfast always included a diverse selection, sliced and served room temperature alongside dried fruits, nuts, cured meats and bread…so much bread: a far cry from my usual morning bowl of oats or poached eggs.

A more obvious example of unique interpretation and appropriation is the Spanish version of hot chocolate. It is however less of an interpretation than an original masterpiece, since the Spanish started drinking hot chocolate long before Nestle or Swiss Miss powdered and put it into single-serve packages. After chocolate being the brunt of every American’s “sinful” indulgence for so long, Spanish drinking chocolate, while still caloric, returns chocolate back to its Mayan roots as an antioxidant-rich and ubiquitous elixir. 

While in Madrid, I was lucky enough to visit the San Gines Chocolateria, renowned for it’s drinking chocolate and churros. In Spain, hot chocolate or taza de chocolate, is served dark and thick. Different from that of American hot chocolate, the texture of taza mimics unset pudding. Upon first bite, I noticed it was rich and thick on the palate without being overtly “creamy”; more translucent than opaque. I learned that instead of being made with milk, taza de chocolate is actually free of dairy: it’s water based and thickened with a little bit of cornstarch instead. Rather than the powder found in American cocoa, drinking chocolate uses chocolate liquor rather cocoa powder, the two bases differing by the omission of cocoa butter in the latter.

Primitive chocolate drinks were first seen in Ancient Mayan diets in North America, but since sugar had yet to make its way to North America, the drink was served cold and unsweetened, often with an addition of spices like chili and cinnamon. After defeating the Aztec, Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés returned to Spain with cocoa beans and the knowledge of how to turn them into a drink. It was this liberation that began chocolate’s evolution from cold to hot, bitter to sweet. Chocolate and its perfect dipping companion, the churro, eventually became traditional “working man’s” breakfast, though now it is consumed by anyone,  at any time of day.

Recently, cacao has been gaining super food status, which means that the plant chock full of health benefits that can—and should—be incorporated into a nutritious, balanced diet. Since drinking chocolate is made with a generous serving of cacao, little sugar, and no dairy, it’s the perfect, healthful way to include chocolate into yours. 

Cacao has five time more flavonoids, a type of antioxidant, than an apple. Studies have shown that flavonoids increase the flexibility of vein and arteries, which lowers blood pressure and reduces the risk for heart disease. Cacao has stress-reducing benefits too, since it can lower the amount of stress-induced cortisol in our blood, and increases the amount of serotonin (the feel-good chemical) in our brain. Researchers from Oxford University have also been studying the positive correlation between drinking flavonoid-rich chocolate and increased blood flow to the brain, which is linked to improved cognitive ability. Chocolate can also be a natural treatment for stomach-related issues, thanks to theobromine, an alkaloid specific to the cacao plant. I will happily drink to that. Eating solid, bar chocolate is equally beneficial: just be sure to look for fair-trade varieties that contain more than 70% percent cacao and unrefined sweeteners, like Gnosis and Lily’s brands. 

Our most recent menu has features our Paleo Cherry Chocolate muffins.  Made with almond flour, honey, fresh cherries, and dark chocolate, I know how I’ll be getting my chocolate fix this week.