If we asked you to think about the capital of chocolate, probably Amsterdam would not be the first destination to come to mind. And yet…
Despite its climate being far from tropical, the much-beloved Dutch destination - more famous for cheese, tulips, quirky canal houses and reckless bikers - has played a fundamental role in the history of cocoa and chocolate as we know it.
This month, Yays shows you the chocolate side of Amsterdam you were not expecting.
Cocoa originated in Mesoamerica and for centuries it was used by indigenous people to produce a drink called xocoatl, meaning “drink of the gods” in the local language. Cocoa beans are naturally extremely bitter in flavour, so the indigenous peoples flavoured the drink with chilli peppers and other native spices. Even so, the result was a muddy mix of water, ground cacao beans and spices, a “godly” beverage that was in fact quite unpalatable for the European taste of the colonizers.
When Columbus took the first cocoa beans back to the Old Continent, the reception was not exactly enthusiastic. It took decades before the indigenous speciality could turn into an agreeable drink for Europeans, thanks to the nuns of a Mexican convent, who sweetened and tweaked the original recipe to meet the different taste of the Old Continent.
Spreading from Spain and through France in the beginning of its European phase, chocolate remained a novelty for the wealthy and the aristocrats, a fancy beverage you could enjoy at royal courts and noble houses.
By the first decades of the 1600s, the Netherlands had already established their role in the European history of cocoa. Thanks to the Dutch Caribbean colony of Curacao, situated across Venezuela, home to some of the best variety of cocoa, and to the trade power of the Dutch West India Company, the Dutch had conquered the cocoa market.
While in its first decades in Europe the beverage went through very few changes, in the early 1700s the English and the Dutch started adding milk to it and established chocolate houses.
The demand for cocoa grew slowly but steadily during the 18th century, while Amsterdam established itself as one of the most important cocoa ports in the world.
The fortunate circumstance of having such an abundance of cocoa beans coming into the port of Amsterdam tickled the imagination of some industrious Dutch minds. Amsterdam-born chemist Casparus van Houten and his son Coenrad introduced groundbreaking technological innovations in the processing of cocoa. Their discoveries made it easier and more affordable to use the tropical ingredient in a variety of preparations. Remarkably, they allowed for its use in the solid form. We’re sure you see where this is going…
Thanks to the van Houtens’ inventions, the 19th century started the so-called “democratization” of chocolate and paved the way for the mass production of chocolate bars.
Hooray! Chocolate was finally a food, and accessible for a larger number of people!
Back to the 21st century, the Netherlands is still at the forefront of cocoa and chocolate. With the country being the largest cocoa processor in the world, the port of Amsterdam remains the largest point of arrival for cocoa beans worldwide. Think about it, as you stroll along the canals: you’re near the largest repository of cocoa in the world.
Now that you know how important Amsterdam is for chocolate lovers like you, watching the cargos sail by from the Yays Crane Apartment will be an entirely different story!
And if you are looking for souvenirs to take back home, consider one of the many chocolate-makers in town. With so much cocoa sailing in for centuries, it will come as no surprise that Amsterdam is home to many fine chocolate makers and artisans.
One of the most successful chocolate stories in town is that of Tony’s Chocolonely (look them up in the Yays Neighbourhhood Guide you’ll receive at check-in).
The funny name of these colourful chocolate bars refers to the unique founding story of this brand.
On March 22nd 2004, consumer journalist Teun (“Tony”) van de Keuken walked up to the nearest police station and turned himself in. In front of TV cameras, he declared himself guilty of exploiting slavery.
He had spent the previous months investigating the use of child labour and slavery in the cocoa industry and had come to the conclusion that it was virtually impossible for consumers to ensure that there was no cocoa from child labour and slavery in chocolate commonly available in supermarkets. Being aware of the sufferings behind chocolate and still eating it was, to him, tantamount to knowingly committing the crime of exploiting slavery.
His gesture succeeded in drawing the attention of the Dutch media on the topic, and led to the birth of the brand Tony’s Chocolonely, committed to the then very lonely mission of bringing slavery-free chocolate to the Dutch market, in the form of high-quality chocolate bars.
Tony’s Chocolonely is based in Amsterdam, with headquarters in the beautiful Westerpark – a short bike ride away from Yays Bickersgracht and Yays Zoutkeetsgracht.
To remind the consumer that inequality is still deeply rooted in the chocolate industry, Tony’s chocolate bars are not evenly divided into squares like every other chocolate; instead, they are designed in a unique uneven pattern.
Besides being committed to a noble cause, Tony’s Chocolonely’s chocolate bars are truly delicious, with original recipes ranging from the classic ones to the more surprising pecan and coconut, popcorn, almonds and sea salt, and many more. It’s good to be their neighbours!
If you are more of a bakery-goer and you prefer chocolate pastry, let your Neighbourhood Guide take you to Petit Gâteau, also our neighbours on the Harlemmerstraat. This lovely French bakery has developed a unique concept and serves beautiful artisanal mini-tarts.
Its founders, Meike and Patrice, met in Paris, where they started their own patisserie before taking their craft to Amsterdam.
You can indulge in their signature miniminis, mini tarts that are tiny in size but huge in flavour and variety. Besides the many chocolate ones, you can taste miniminis topped with fruit or nuts. All of them are miniature works of gastronomic art that you can enjoy guilt-free in the neighbourhood.
If you want to discover more about the social and cultural aspects of the cocoa trade, you can visit the current exhibition “Bitter Chocolate Stories”, at the Tropenmuseum – the local museum of word cultures - till September 2019 – in walking distance from Yays Oostenburgergracht.
Since you’re in the neighbourhood, you might want to pay a visit to the cocoa tree in the Hortus Botanicus, the historical botanical gardens of Amsterdam.
When you’re back from your urban chocolate explorations, you might want to stop – just across the canal from Yays Zoutkeetsgracht – at De Gouden Reael, and enjoy their Chocolate Delight dessert. The name speaks for itself!
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