As Valentine’s Day approaches, sales of chocolate soar worldwide, as the delicacy is a favored gift for the occasion. In the U.S. alone, consumers buy nearly 60 million pounds of Valentine’s chocolate each year. Yet, had it not been for a chance encounter in Honduras between Christopher Columbus and a group of natives, the world may not have known chocolate at all.
In 1502, Columbus and his crew landed on Guanaja, one of Honduras’ idyllic Bay Islands in the Caribbean, where they encountered cacao — the beans used to make chocolate — for the first time ever. In his ship’s log, Columbus’ brother, Bartholomew, said the explorer’s crew saw a canoe whose own crew carefully guarded the exotic beans, which was no surprise since they were used as currency.
Studies have detected cacao residue in clay pots found in Honduras, from between 1,400 and 1,000 years before the Common Era. The residue is believed to have come from a cacao-based beverage brewed more than 2,000 years before Columbus encountered the bean. That is many centuries before the concept of setting aside a day to celebrate love was first introduced by the ancient Romans.
Today, Honduras is a leading producer of cacao, including the Indio Rojo variety, a hybrid only grown there. While Columbus found cacao beans bitter, chocolatiers now use them to create a variety of sweets, many of them sold for the romantic holiday. European chocolatiers pay premiums of as much as 40 per cent for Honduran cacao due to its fine quality.
Among world-class chocolatiers is Honduran-born Maribel Lieberman, whose MarieBelle and Cacao Market stores in New York and Japan sell premium chocolates, some of which are made with Honduran cacao. Lieberman created a chain of chocolate stores that have set a new standard for chocolate confections. Her hot chocolate was voted the best in New York by The New York Times and selected as one of “Oprah’s Favorite Things”
Lieberman’s MarieBelle store in Manhattan’s SoHo features chocolates made from a variety of high-end cacao, but some of the best products in her Cacao Market store, the newest of which opens this month in Brooklyn’s Greenpoint, are made from Honduras’ prized Indio Rojo variety. “Ever since Columbus found cacao for the first time in Honduras, chocolate has been referred to as the ‘gift of the gods’,” says Lieberman. “Today, it is hard to imagine a premium chocolatier that does not use Honduran cacao.”
So, as love birds exchange chocolates this Valentine’s Day, maybe next year they’ll consider taking a romantic getaway to the Honduran island of Roatan, one of the Caribbean’s hottest destinations, located just a short sail from Guanaja – the true birthplace of chocolate.
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