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Benjamin D'Acosta and the Chocolate Factory

How Sephardic Businessmen Played a Key Role in the Transport of Ingredients to Europe that Led to the Development of Modern Chocolate

I am not a chocoholic, but when I do indulge, it had better be worth the calories and the energy blast. You see, after I've had my share of chocolate sweets, I start zooming around the house! It's that same caffeine buzz that made the Aztecs adore their bitter chocolate drink. Montezuma purportedly loved this beverage so much he drank fifty cups a day.

Cacao was first cultivated by the Mayans in the 7th century. Nine centuries later the Aztecs would create a beverage from ground and roasted cacao beans, mixing in corn, vanilla, bitter chili, and sometimes honey. They introduced the dark elixir to the explorer Hernando Cortez, who brought it back to Spain. But had it not been for the expulsion and forced conversion of Jews from the Iberian Peninsula in the late 15th century, chocolate as we know it today might not have become the most favored flavor in the world.

Benjamin d'Acosta de Andrade, a Portuguese "marrano" (secret Jew) who had settled on the island of Martinique in the French West Indies in about 1650, established the first cacao-processing plant. He then used his connections--particularly his relatives in Amsterdam--to export cacao to Europe. Over time, he and other Jews became significant players in the cacao trade, angering their envious competitors, who convinced the French government to bar all Jews from Martinique. Relocating in the late 1600s to the Dutch colony of Curaçao, an island off the west coast of Venezuela, d'Acosta and other Jews reestablished their business, now shipping cacao grown in Venezuela to Amsterdam for chocolate production. In addition, they exported sugar and vanilla from South America.

The introduction of sugar to Europe would change the history of chocolate. With the notable exception of the Spanish, most Europeans disliked the bitter-flavored chocolate drink of the Aztecs. But when sugar replaced chilies as a key ingredient, the drink caught on throughout Europe. And the availability of vanilla, combined with sugar and cacao, piqued the creativity of pastry chefs throughout Europe. The bakers in Bayonne--many of them Portuguese Jews--would bake soufflé-like cake rolls which were light as air. In Italy, Jewish bakers invented chocolate cakes known as tortes or tortas, using ground nuts instead of flour; and in Vienna, 16-year-old Franz Sacher created a rich, dense chocolate cake topped with apricot preserves and smooth chocolate glaze that would become world famous. With the demand for the ingredients of chocolate production ever growing, the Jews of Curaçao flourished--so much so that they were able to contribute some of their profits to the building, in 1762, of the oldest standing synagogue in the United States, the Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island.

Today, consumption of chocolate in the United States alone exceeds 2.3 billion pounds a year. The British, who invented the first chocolate candy bar in 1847, are the top consumers, at thirty pounds per person per year. Ironically, the Spanish, who introduced cacao to Europe, consume the least. Consider this: had our Sephardic ancestors not sailed across the Atlantic in pursuit of religious freedom and capitalized on their contacts with fellow Jews who had found sanctuary in European port cities such as Amsterdam, Bayonne, and Livorno, the international chocolate industry might never have existed! So whenever I bite into a sweet chocolate morsel, I salute the courageous and industrious Jewish pioneers who have had such an indelibly delicious influence on the desserts of the world.