To mark the launch of Legend by Ashford Castle—a v55 percent cocoa chocolate couverture available exclusively at Ashford Castle—we delve into the compelling history of cacao. Here’s a glimpse of the cocoa bean’s storied past, from a fermented drink a millennium ago to a delectable new confection care of the castle’s pastry chef Paula Stakelum and luxury producer Valrhona.
The legend of chocolate traces its roots to the Olmec, the earliest civilisation to inhabit southeast Mexico. Across Latin America, the cacao tree grows wild, and it was this ancient people’s word kakawa that gave rise to ours, cacao. Little is known of their chocolate consumption, but evidence points to a fermented cacao drink enjoyed as an alcoholic beverage during religious rituals and as a form of medicine from as early as 1400 BCE.
The Mayan and Aztec civilisations left historians with a far broader understanding of their legendary chocolate. They consumed cacao as a drink at official ceremonies, feasts and festivals. Cacao was offered to the deities at funerals and in Mayan marriage ceremonies. The Mayans believed cacao to be the food of the gods—specifically rain god Kon—and that they had once shed their divine blood onto the cacao pod. The Aztecs associated cacao with the god Quetzalcoatl, who was thought to have been condemned by the other gods for sharing chocolate with humans.
Both civilisations traded cacao as currency, using the beans to buy everything from avocados and rabbits to slaves and canoes. While the Mayans served their foamy, liquid chocolate hot, and sometimes seasoned with indigenous flowers, chillies or vanilla pods, the Aztecs enjoyed cacao cold as an aphrodisiac digestif for men.
The great evolution
Their legendary chocolate didn’t reach Europe until the 16th century. Christopher Columbus encountered the cacao bean while sailing to the Americas in 1501. But it was following Spain’s conquests in South America that chocolate was transported to Europe. Sweetened with sugar or honey, the drink soared in popularity.
History was made by Joseph Fry in 1847. The English entrepreneur produced the world’s first ever solid chocolate bar, by adding more cocoa butter than hot water to cocoa powder and sugar. A handful of others reinvented the bar in the years thereafter, with Daniel Peter and Henri Nestle introducing condensed milk to the mix in 1875—the creation of the milk chocolate bar.
A legend in the making
A new chapter in the legend of chocolate, Ashford Castle is delighted to present its bespoke couverture, a rich cocoaty chocolate, infused with soft milk notes and aromas of sweet vanilla, biscuit and fresh florals. Legend by Ashford Castle is made with Valrhona, which sustainably harvests its cocoa to support the local farming communities and their environment in Africa.
“We chose to work with Valrhona as we believe it is the best chocolate in the world. We also share the same beliefs regarding sourcing, sustainability and quality. It is important to our sustainability ethos, that we create with meaning,” says Paula. “As legend has it, Ashford Castle was founded in the year 1228. Over eight hundred years later, in 2013, we began to work with a true legend, Mrs Tollman, Founder and President of Red Carnation Hotels. In 2019, we celebrate 80 years of Irish hospitality at the Castle and together we have created ‘Legend’ by Ashford Castle.”
Sample Legend by Ashford Castle, an ethically produced, delicious chocolate, when visiting Red Carnation Hotels’ Ashford Castle.