The month of December, a time of being together, presents, being cozy in your warm house and of course… chocolate! It all starts the first week of December with Saint Nicholas: the little saint nicholas and “zwarte pieten”, coins, lollipops and of course the letters, all made of chocolate.
After that it's Christmas time and chocolate comes in so many shapes: Christmas trees, snowmen, Santa Clauses, reindeer, Christmas bulbs, Christmas wreaths, penguins, stars,… You name it. And of course we can’t forget about the Advent calendars. The trick with those is to really only eat one chocolate a day instead of munching the whole thing in one sitting. A true exercise of self control.
But how is chocolate made?
The cacao beans are harvested in Africa or South-America, but mostly Africa. Then the beans are fermented and dried. When the cacao beans are sufficiently dry, they are crushed, roasted and ground. After grinding the beans are pressed. The pressing separates the cacao butter from the cacao powder. The cacao butter is then mixed with milk, sugar and the cacao liquid. That mix is then refined and afterwards conched (in one of those big machines where the mix is stirred for a long time to really get everything mixed). To make sure the chocolate will be smooth, shiny and crispy the mix gets tempered (it’s warm, gets cold and then warm again). The mix is then mixed some more and to get the chocolate in all those fun shapes, the liquid chocolate gets poured into the plastic mold. Then the confectioner lets what is too much run out. The chocolate will harden and take on the shape of the mold. When the chocolate is hardened enough, it gets taken out of the mold and the packaging process can begin. At the beginning of the nineteenth century the molds were made of tin or iron, later that century it was plaster and copper. Now they’re basically all plastic.
The tradition of eating chocolate during the holidays in Belgium and the Netherlands comes from the old days, when we were still the Kingdom of the Netherlands, because kids who behaved well, got chocolate from “de Sint” (Saint Nicholas) as a reward. Later on the chocolate was consumed by everyone; not only the children but the adults as well loved to eat these treats. Chocolate already came in different shapes back then. One shape that is no longer (really) sold is the clog and/or shoe. They represented the shoe that children would put out for the horse of Saint Nicholas.
A typical chocolate shape in Belgium and the Netherlands for Sinterklaas is chocolate coins. This tradition is believed to come from the fact that Saint Nicholas of Myra gave gold coins to the poor. In the United Kingdom the kids are given these coins for Christmas. But the tradition comes from the same legend.
For Christmas, since the nineteenth century we've had Advent calendars. The calendars were made so people could really look forward to Christmas, because Christmas was such an important holiday and the people were more religious back then. For the children there were little chocolates or other kinds of sweets in the calendars, for the adults there were small pictures or sayings, usually with a biblical theme, of course. Nowadays there are hundreds of types of Advent calendars, many with chocolate (like Celebrations,Côte d’Or, Tony's Chocolonely, Ferrero's,…) and other kinds of candies (M&M’s, Haribo, Chupa Chups, Pringles,…), but also calendars with wine, strong liquor, muesli, coffee, tea and even inedible Advent calendar exist these days: with care products, make-up, candles, scratch cards and even sex toys. The true Christmas spirit?
There are so many different kinds of chocolate in so many shapes that it can be hard to choose sometimes, but whichever you choose, it’ll always be the right choice! As long as you eat it with family, friends and other loved ones, because that’s what the holidays in December are about.
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!
Do you know where the chocolate letters come from?
In convents back in the day, letters of bread dough were used to teach children the letters of the alphabet. Those letters were used during Sinterklaas to put on the gifts so everyone knew which gift belonged to whom. When chocolate became cheaper and cheaper in the nineteenth century which meant it became more and more popular, the letters were being made of chocolate.