The Museum of Chocolate
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OLD Havana, a World Heritage Site, is the original center of the San Cristobal de la Habana settlement founded in 1519. Touring it is essential and never- ending. Palaces, mansions, fortifications, narrow streets and wide plazas, museums, concert halls.

The City Historian’s Office is undertaking an impressive restoration project, with visible fruits, transforming its close to three square kilometers into the finest conserved urban center in the Americas.

 

Its monuments, house arcades, balconies, ironwork doorways and interior patios are places of great interest to value and photograph, whether in Plaza de Armas or Plaza Vieja, or Obispo, Oficios or Mercaderes streets.

There comes a moment in walking through Old Havana when a rest becomes obligatory, and nowhere better than a place very near San Francisco Plaza, for a delicious halt.

Mercaderes and Amargura is the exact location of the Museum of Chocolate, established in 2003. In addition to an exhibition of items related to the preparation and consumption of chocolate, one can appreciate it as a handmade craft and, of course, acquire solid or filled candies and enjoy a hot or cold cup of chocolate.

 

MOCTEZUMA’S XOCOLATL

The taste for chocolate has been so widespread throughout the world for centuries that there is no need to advocate it; even films have made use of it. Fresa y Chocolate, by Cubans Tomás Gutiérrez Alea and Juan Carlos Tabío; Chocolat, by Lasse Hallström, with Juliette Binoche and Johnny Depp; Merci pour le chocolat, from Frenchman Claude Chabrol with Isabelle Huppert, and Como agua para chocolate from Mexican Alfonso Arau.

However, it is worth recalling that the scientific name of the cacao tree is theobroma cacao, meaning "food of the gods" in Greek. It was coined by Swedish scientist Carlos Linneo in 1737, doubtless in reference to Aztec mythology in which the god Quetzalcoatl regaled humans with the cacao tree before being expelled from Paradise.

According to historical accounts, King Moctezuma used to consume a thick, dark and foamy liquid drink which could be taken hot or cold, called "xocolatl", a mix of cacao beans aromatized with herbs, vanilla, pepper and other spices.

Some say it was taken to Europe by Admiral Christopher Columbus and others, by a monk who accompanied Hernán Cortés, the conquistador of Mexico. It is a fact that the taste for it quickly became rooted and is was taken thick, in the Spanish manner, or in French way, with water, whipped and foamy.

It wasn’t until the 19th century that it was enjoyed in solid form. Swiss Daniel Peter was the first to try mixing it with milk to make it creamier, but he was unsuccessful until he got together with Henry Nestlé, who had the idea of mixing it with sweetened condensed milk. Chocolate as we know it today goes back to the addition of cocoa butter by another Swiss, confectioner Rodolphe Lindt.

 

CASANOVA

Chocolate, this sublime paste, has many benefits. It is said that the famous Italian libertine Giacomo Casanova (1725-1798) took it before repairing to the beds of his conquests, given its reputation as a subtle aphrodisiac.

Pharmaceutical logs from the 18th century reveal its curative power and pharmacies offered diverse varieties, as a laxative and even poison antidote.

Today, chocolate lovers have more reason to be content, given that recent clinical trials have demonstrated that a few mouthfuls of dark chocolate a day has the same effect as aspirins in reducing high blood pressure and preventing heart attacks.

Part of this history can be found in summary in Havana’s Museum of Chocolate, established in the famous Casa de la Cruz Verde, residence of the Counts of Lagunilla which, in the sale and retail of properties, was acquired in 1880 by María de Regla Sañudo for her three children: Lizardo, María Teresa and María de las Mercedes Muñoz Sañudo. This last married Liberation Army General Enrique Loynaz del Castillo and four children were born of this union, one of whom was the poet Dulce María Loynaz Muñoz (1902-1997), National Literature and Cervantes Prize.

Inspired by the Museum of Chocolate in Brussels, whose director, Jo Draps, supported its creation, panels display the varieties of chocolate cultivated in Cuba, and the most famed brands that existed in Havana, like La Estrella, La Dominica, plus the first Cuban chocolate factory, La India in Santiago de Cuba.

It has a collection of chocolate cups of English, German, Italian and French porcelain from the 19th and 20th centuries, in a variety of designs, and also ceramic containers, cooking pots, jugs and English china bowls found on site and conserved by the City Museum and the Historian’s Office Archeology Department.

An anonymous proverb says that "God gave wings to angels and chocolate to humans," for which a stop in the Museum of Chocolate during a tour of Old Havana will doubtless be exquisite one.

 

By MIREYA CASTAÑEDA, 2012