Napier’s Chocolate History At Silky Oak

Years ago, my partner and I, on a two-year odyssey in Africa, came across a settlement of Pygmies. A gaggle of cute diminutive children mobbed the VW Kombi. We had nothing except a cake of Cadbury chocolate to offer them, and we broke it into even pieces and handed it around.

Their reaction was curious. The children pulled disgusted faces and spat the precious morsels into the dust. The incident made me question our own love affair with chocolate and how in the West had acquired a taste for it when they obviously hadn’t.

I never got around to finding out why until two months ago, when I visited the Silky Oak Chocolate Company on Links Road, Napier—a complex that comprises a factory, a shop, a cafe, and a comprehensive museum.

There I learned that Quetzalcoatl, a feathered snake and God of the Aztecs, is credited with giving the cacao tree to humankind, and that it was the Mayans, who at around 2600BC, grew the plant, roasted it, ground it, and added chilli and vanilla to develop the beans into a drink. They became so enamoured with the concoction, they eventually worshipped the tree.

When the early explorers started expanding the known world, the worship of the beverage began to spread. Fernando Cortez, a Spanish explorer, mentioned it in a letter to Emperor Charles V in 1520.

He called it a divine drink, which built up resistance and fought fatigue. In 1540, ladies of the night charged 10 cacao beans for their services. Dr Richard Brookes, in 1724, claimed that chocolate prolonged life and cured ringworm, ulcers, gout, and piles.

One century later, John Cadbury opened the first chocolate shop in Birmingham, England, which 25 years later, produced the first chocolate bar. It is apparently still on display somewhere in the city. By the mid-19th century, other names we chocoholics know well began to emerge—Rowntree, Hershey, Nestlé, all pioneer chocolate manufacturers.

Skip a century and in New Zealand, in 1959, Ant Kramer, a Dutch chocolatier, opened a shop in Napier. In January 2000, the Silky Oak Chocolate Company brought the rights from Kramer and, now owned by Jeanette and Kevin Darwen, it has been trading at the present site ever since.

In the Silky Oak shop, the titillating aroma of this ancient bonbon made a purchase irresistible. I bought two delectable marshmallow Easter eggs, one for me and one for Bill. I’m sorry to say, I ate them both but I’ve ordered six for next Easter and this time I promise  to share.
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