Chocolate. Just the word alone is enough. Who doesn’t love chocolate? If there were a list of things that are universally loved, chocolate would be sitting pretty at the top.
Naturally, we humans have done to chocolate what we have always done to anything we love. We try to mix and combine it with other things we love. Sometimes, it doesn’t really work out. But occasionally, we get it right. For example, chocolate and spices. You may well have seen some mysterious, luxurious-looking bars on your local supermarket shelves – dark chocolate and chili or milk chocolate and smoked paprika. Who would’ve thought?
Well, it turns out we thought about this a long, long time ago. In Mexico, as early as 500BC (2500 years ago!), the Mayans were drinking chocolate. In fact, some archeologists are certain that the Olmecs (the oldest civilization of the Americas, dating back to 1500BC) were the very first users of cocoa. When you think about the fact that they would’ve been surrounded by cocoa beans, it’s a little less surprising.
Like something from a dream or Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, chocolate quite literally grows on trees. In its raw state, it looks a bit like a melon, hanging off 60ft trees known as ‘Theobroma Cacao’. Very aptly, this translates as ‘food of the gods’. You’ll find the tree growing all over Africa, parts of Indonesia, South America and Central America. Inside the melon-like pods, you’ll find the seeds (cocoa beans).
From ancient times, Central American natives mixed these cocoa beans with water, cornmeal and chili peppers! So from the very earliest days of our relationship with chocolate, we were mixing it with something hot and spicy – perhaps the two ingredients were always meant to be?
The Mayans mixed the drink by pouring it back and forth from cup to pot – a lot like the way Chai Tea is poured back and forth in India. Once a thick foam had developed, they would then enjoy the beverage cold. The Mexican Indian word ‘chocolat’ comes from the combination of the terms ‘choco’ (foam) and ‘atl’ (water).
Nowadays, the process of enjoying chocolate and spices is often a little different. Whilst a spiced pumpkin hot chocolate doesn’t go amiss, we often consume the stuff in its solid form – the classic chocolate bar. But it wasn’t until the 18th century that chocolate really began to evolve from a drink. Firstly, in Holland (the Dutch controlled nearly all of the cocoa bean trade at this time), cocoa powder was invented. This blended much easier with milk or water and allowed for new and innovative creations.
Soon enough, cocoa butter was being mixed with sugar and, in 1876, milk chocolate was developed. It was from this point onwards that chocolate became much more popular in its solid form, rather than the drinkable origins.
Similarly to the way gin has gone, the solid chocolate bars we know and love today are experiencing something of a revolution – an explosion in different types and flavours…perhaps harking back to the very early roots left behind by the Mayans. So, what are the most popular spices and herbs to mix with chocolate? Below, we’ve listed some of our favourites, divided by white, milk and dark chocolate.
Perfect with strong, distinct flavours.
Sesame seeds – mild, sweet and nutty in flavour. They have a satisfying crunch when eaten whole and are often baked or toasted to bring out a stronger almond-like flavour and aroma.
Lavender – the very strong smell is reflected in the flavour too. It’s both floral and sweet, herbal and earthy.
Lemongrass – citrusy with a lemon flavour (without the full bitterness of lemon) – a little like lemon mint. It’s quite a light flavour that won’t overpower anything else but it does add a slightly sharp, tangy taste.
Bay leaf – almost minty in their flavour (between spearmint and menthol) with hints of black pepper and pine. Overall, they add a subtle bitterness.
Jasmine – a highly delicate and subtle flavour profile that carries notes of a sweet and fresh floral finish. It’s got a very distinct aroma – like a perfumed flower.
Basil – this flavour balances between sweet and savoury. There’s hints of mint, anise and pepper in the initial taste. However, this aromatic herb adds an overall sprinkle of sweetness to your palette.
Ginger – a much loved spice by cooks all around the world, Ginger’s flavour is unique. It’s a combination of lemon and citrus, yet also carries musty and earthy flavor notes. Overall, it’s a warming taste.
Saffron – expensive and fancy, saffron has a sweet, floral taste to it that’s very earthy and nuanced. Use sparingly.
Mild, sweet flavour. Goes well with earthy or fruity flavours.
Black cardamom – has an intense smoky, minty and earthy flavour with notes of pine.
Green cardamom – more of a zesty, sharp citrus flavor that can be both sweet and spicy at the same time.
Clove – one to use sparingly. The flavour is strong, pungent and sweet – almost hot. It’s one of the most penetrating of all spices and the bitter, astringent flavour can leave a bit of a numbing sensation in the mouth.
Chai tea – becoming a favourite to mix with milk chocolate, this is an earthy, robust flavour. Milk counteracts the sharp flavour of the spice blend, resulting in a taste that’s both pepper yet smooth and creamy.
Sea salt – this is an easy one. Ever been swimming in the sea and accidentally got a taste of the ocean? Sea salt is quite potent and you won’t need a lot to bring your milk chocolate to life.
Anise – you either love it or hate it. Anise has a sweet, fragrant aroma with a strong, licorice-like taste.
Pink Himalayan salt – saltier than your average table salt, Himalayan salt is pink thanks to traces of Iron Oxide. You’ll also find calcium, potassium and magnesium present.
Very versatile because of its bittersweet taste. Goes best with bold, tangy flavours.
Cinnamon – a real favourite when it comes to mixing with chocolate. Cinnamon has a sweet and woody flavour alongside slight citrusy notes. The spicy taste is often compared with cloves.
Cayenne – super spicy chili that’s rated highly on the Scoville scale. You won’t need much of this to really pack a punch with your dark chocolate.
Curry – sweet, fiery and zingy. You wouldn’t think it, but curry powder can work fantastically well when paired with dark chocolate. Try it!
Black pepper – sometimes overlooked due to its popularity and common use. Can work well in chocolate because of its sharp, penetrating aroma and a characteristic woody, piney flavor. Hot and biting to taste.
Ancho chile – anchos are big and that means that they have a milder heat than something like cayenne. The flavour is rich and complex – it’s earthy, sweet, and slightly fruity.
Mint – a very popular pairing with chocolate (think mint chocolate ice cream). It’s sweet and produces a lingering, cool effect on the tongue.
Wasabi – tastes very bright and fresh with a heat that fades quick. It’s much more similar in taste to hot mustard or horseradish rather than chili peppers because it stimulates the nose more than the tongue.
Chipotle – Smoky and spicy in its flavour thanks to the smoked chili peppers. The chipotle pepper also carries a very mild sweetness and, depending on the blend, there may be zesty flavours present from lime juice, cilantro or garlic.
Jalapeño – bright and grassy in flavor with a slight level of heat. They can even have a slight bitterness to their taste.
Fennel – a fresh and bright taste that can pack a punch – a little bit like licorice or anise.
Smoked paprika – typically smoked with oak which leads to a strong outdoorsy flavour that’s hot and tangy. You’d be surprised by how well this goes with dark chocolate.