Often when I travel, I buy chocolate bars. They’re easy gifts to pack and bring sweet memories on my return home. When I was in Sicily recently, I bought some Modican chocolate. I hadn’t done my homework on that one. I didn’t taste it until I got home. What a surprise! It wasn’t at all what I expected. It was gritty. At first, I thought I had gotten some old candy, that had lost its smoothness. But each of the varieties was that way.
Very strange. My curiosity led me to an Internet search. I soon discovered that I was eating a chocolate candy bar like those made by Aztecs centuries ago—or, at least, a pretty close replica.
Today the same ancient formula is followed by chocolatiers in Modica, Sicily. It all started when the Spanish introduced chocolate during their rule over the island in the 15th and 16th centuries. The Conquistadors had come upon xocolatl made from cacao seeds during their earlier conquest of South America. Eaten solid, or used as a beverage, it was a favorite of the Aztecs, who thought it gave them strength and vigor—probably because of the caffeine boost.
How the First Chocolate Bar Was Made
To make chocolate, the Aztecs merely toasted, ground, and warmed the cacao beans before adding sugar and shaping the bars. Cooking the mixture at a low temperature, prevented the sugar crystals from melting and gave the chocolate bars a distinct granular texture.
While the old formula is still used in Modica today, optional flavors have been added: pistachio nut, almond, cinnamon, orange, lemon zest, mint, chili pepper, wild fennel, or jasmine. Most modern chocolatiers liquefy the cocoa bean and add butter and such things as vegetable fat, milk, derivatives or lecithin. Sicilians claim the original way of making chocolate preserves more nutrients and flavor.
Chocolate Packs a Punch
I returned to my Sicilian candy bars and gave them another try. It’s definitely “industrial strength” chocolate; a little goes a long way. The taste is simpler and less adulterated than what I usually eat.
Still, I’m not ready to give up the smoothness of Belgium or Colombian chocolate. But from a historic perspective, I’m glad to know that the Sicilians are turning out chocolate much like the Spanish invaders did centuries ago.
I’m thinking this primeval form of chocolate is loaded with naturally occurring flavanols that come from the cocoa bean. Researchers say it’s the stuff that reverses age-related memory decline.
Hmm. . . . good to know. I might melt down these remaining bars into an Aztec drink to see if it also dispenses “strength and vigor” like it once did. I’ll keep you posted.
For those who’d like to try Modican candy bars, they’re available on Amazon for $8 each.