Monday, February 13, 2012

Hearts, Chocolates, & Roses...Oh My...

"Love is the irresistible desire to be desired irresistibly."

~ Robert Frost

Valentine's Day is tomorrow.  A day of love, and the expression of love to those we hold most dear.  As I filled out the card I was sending to my parents for their anniversary (they were married on Valentine's Day), I began to think about Valentine cards, and the other gifts of the day.  Anything with a heart on it. Boxes of chocolate candies.  Bouquets of roses. thoughts led me around to some questions.  

How did the shape of the Valentine's heart come about?  I have seen photographs and drawings of a real human heart, and they don't match up. How did people come to give chocolates?  What is the significance of roses? It was time to do some detective work...

The Valentine's Heart

(Cyrene coin)
I found two main schools of thought on the current heart shapes origins.  The first involved the ancient city-state of Cyrene in the 17th Century B.C.  They had a very profitable trade in a now extinct North African plant called Silphium.  It's use was mainly as a seasoning, but it was also said to be used as a form of contraceptive. Cyrene's economy was so reliant on the seed bearing plant, they depicted a drawing of the heart shaped seedpod on coins (pictured).  The seedpods contraceptive use was said to be linked to sex and by extension love, so that's how the shape got its start as the symbol for our center of love:  the heart.
(St. Margaret Mary Alocoque)

The other main explanation comes from the Catholic Church.  Their contention is that the modern heart shape didn't come along until the 17th Century.  The shapes discovery is credited to St. Margaret Mary Alocoque.  The story is she had a vision of the heart shape surrounded by a ring of thorns.  If this sounds familiar to you, the symbol is known as the "Sacrad Heart of Jesus". It is associated with devotion and love.  Scholars will concede that the heart shape may have been popularized by the Sacrad heart, but many believe that the shape existed earlier than the 1600's.
(Sacrad Heart of Jesus)

(Early Valentine card)
Other theories include the belief that it came from botched attempts to draw the human heart. The belief that medieval artists may have created the shape from early descriptions of the human heart being rounded at the top and pointy on the bottom.  Courtly love was the tradition of the time, so that may have started the association of the heart shape with romance.  There are also those that believe the shape came from elements of the female anatomy ( the shape of breasts, and/or the shape of  a woman's rear end).

The heart became a true symbol of love and romance as depicted on Valentine cards in 17th Century England, as the exchanging of Valentines became popular during that time.  Early Valentine cards were usually adorned with a heart and various bows and ribbons.


Whether shaped like a big, red heart, or topped with a bow, boxed chocolates are a staple on Valentine's Day.  Over the span of one year, women purchase more chocolate than men at a whopping 75%.  However, over the few days leading up to Valentine's Day, men are the winners at about 75% of chocolate sales.  How did chocolate become such a staple as a Valentine's Day expression of love?  I think most of the candies' allure lies within the history of this popular confection.

(raw cacao beans)
Chocolate can be traced back to Aztec civilization, where is was a popular beverage and gift.  Originally a drink made from the fruit of the cacao tree, 'chocolate' was believed to be a source of great energy. The scientific name for the trees' fruit is 'Theobroma Cacao'.  Translated from Greek, the name literally means "food of the Gods".  The cacao beans would be dried and fermented before being roasted.  Once roasting was finished, the beans would be ground into a paste that would be mixed with hot water.  This liquid mixture would be quite oily.  The liquid would then go through a mixing process between two containers, one held a great distance from the other. (I have seen this mixing method before.  I believe it is called "pulling".)  Pouring the mixture from one container to the other would eventually produce a frothy concoction that was sought after by those seeking pleasure.  Drinkers believed that the luxurious beverage would imbue them with great health benefits. Its use has also been linked to wedding ceremonies, the drink being widely used as a nuptial aid.
(Left: Montezuma; Right: Cortez)
The Emperor Montezuma was a big fan of the drink, consuming large quantities of it daily.  He would consume a large glass before visiting his harem.  Spanish explorer, Cortez, spoke of the drink in a report to Carlos I, of Spain:  "A divine drink which builds up resistance and fights fatigue.  A cup of this precious drink enables a man to walk for a whole day without food". Early on, the fruit of the Cacao tree was considered to be a source of vitality and power.  In 1585, when the first shipments arrived in Spain from Veracruz, it was a great subject of study.

I have heard from various sources over the years, that chocolate is an aphrodisiac.  It turns out that it's not, but it does still give pleasant sensations. Chocolate contains organic substances called alkaloids.  The most notable of these alkaloids is Theobromine, which works as a stimulant to the kidneys.
(Left: Theobromine; Right: Phenylethylamine)
Chocolate also contains endorphins like 'phenylethylamine', which has similar effects to amphetamines.  These are found naturally in the human body.  They act as a kind of "mood lifter" once they enter the bloodstream.  Seratonin is also present in chocolate, and has calming properties.  All of the various substances present in chocolate can explain why chocolate can evoke a number of feelings.
(Left: Milk Chocolate; Right: Dark Chocolate)
There are really no great benefits to ones health from eating chocolate.  It's easily seen when looking at the sugar and fat content of a chocolate bar.  A slightly better alternative than your average milk chocolate, is to go for a dark chocolate (my personal favorite).  Dark chocolate does have a high cacao butter content, but it has no added fat, and less sugar.  I prefer the darker chocolates as they are richer and have a bitter edge to them.

How did the sweetened forms of chocolate evolve?  The Aztecs drank their cacao beverage in its bitter form.  When the cacao bean and drink made its way to Spain, experiments were started in adding vanilla and sugar as sweetening agents.  These experiments resulted in 'hot chocolate'.  It's popularity was most prominent in the upper-classes as it was too expensive for the lower classes to afford.  As the use of cacao made its way into Europe, it was added to baked goods.  By the first half of the 18th century, it's usage increased.  More availability of goods containing chocolate meant more affordability in the general population of Europe and the Euro-colonies in the New World.

Now that the basic history of chocolate has shown the evolution of the cacao bean into a hot beverage and a baking additive, how did it become the creamy smooth confection known as chocolate candy?
(Conrad van Houten, and his cacao press)
The evolution of cocoa started in the year 1828, when Conrad van Houten of Holland created a cocoa press that made him the creator of refined cocoa powder.  With this press, the output of cocoa powder increased lowering its price even further.  Also, around this time, people started mixing the powder with milk, a concoction that became known as 'Hot Cocoa'.  The original mixture with water retained it's moniker of 'Hot Chocolate'. 

(Daniel Peter)
In the year 1876, Swiss chocolatier, Daniel Peter, invented the process for making candy out of milk chocolate.  This new process was quickly picked up by the head of a now famous candy company, Henri Nestle.

It wasn't until 1913 that people would experience the delicious treat of a filled candy. Swiss chocolate maker, Jules Sechaud, is credited with being the creator of the first chocolate candies centered with cream, and other fillings.  The modern soft centered chocolate was born.

These days there are chocolates to satisfy the palates of most candy lovers. From Aztec civilization to today chocolate has been given as a gift for various reasons, but nothing compares to the amount of chocolate given on this special day of love: Valentine's Day.  Sweets for the sweet...


I am sure that there are various varieties of flowers that people give on Valentine's Day, but the most popular one that symbolizes Valentine's Day is the rose.  I think it's obvious that red roses are the hands down winners as the most popular flower given to Valentines Day sweethearts.  There are a couple of others I always see around this time of year, too.  Here are three roses with their meanings, starting with the stereotypical red rose:

Red roses convey love and romance.  They symbolize perfection and beauty.  Giving one red rose to someone special says "I Love You".

Pink roses symbolize elegance and grace.  if you have a special someone, but you're not ready to say the 'L-word', then pink roses are for you.  A bouquet of pink roses is an expression of your admiration.  They also represent joyfulness.

I also see white roses when passing a Valentines display in a store.  They represent purity and innocence, as well as symbolizing honor and reverence.  The white rose is associated with marriages.  They also are an expression of remembrance.

If you mix red roses with white in a bouquet, it symbolizes unity.

Wishing everyone a Happy Valentine's Day!

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