When you bite into your next chunky Kit Kat or bar of Green and Blacks, be thankful for Medieval Jewish foodies.
According to Rabbi Deborah Prinz, it was Jews who first brought chocolate to Europe. Her findings are now explained in a fascinating book entitled On the Chocolate Trail.
Prinz, who grew up in LA but now resides in New York, was one of the first female rabbis in the United States.
“I was technically the fourth woman ordained in the US Reform movement; ‘technically’ because three of my female contemporaries were ordained very shortly afterwards,” she explains.
She spent most of her career on the West Coast of the US but for the past six years she has lived and worked in New York.
It was in 2006 that she stumbled across the chocolate story during a sabbatical with husband, Rabbi Mark Hurvitz. They had rented a VW camper van in which to tour Europe and were due to set off in the spring.
“My husband wanted to head to the warmer south quickly,” she explains.
“He was not keen on visiting Paris, but then, on Valentine’s Day — a month before we left — I heard a radio programme describing the chocolatiers of Paris,” Prinz recalls.
From that moment, Paris was firmly on the agenda.
“I planned an itinerary to maximise the opportunity to see the chocolate stores as well as the culture,” she smiles.
And it was in a shop they had not actually previously identified – L’Atelier du Chocolate de Bayonne — in which Prinz happened upon a leaflet, describing the connection between Jews and chocolate.
“I translated it with my high school French. It seemed to say that Jews had brought chocolate to France when they settled in the city of Bayonne. I re-read it several times as I couldn’t be sure that I had understood it correctly,” she laughs.
Wondering why she had never heard this during her years of Jewish studies, the sweet-toothed Prinz decided to investigate.
Unravelling the connection between Jews and chocolate seemed dauntingly immense, but, as she says in her book: “I could feel my inner Nancy Drew transforming me. I just knew in my gut that there had to be a story.”
She describes in the book her inner “choco-dar” which seemed to lead her to “uncover the stories of Jews, religions and chocolate”.
Her research — over the next six years — took her to several countries including Spain, Mexico and Switzerland.
“I obtained grants to research the link between chocolate and Jews at various major libraries,” she explains. And all of this while working full-time as director of programme and member services and director of the joint commission on rabbinic mentoring at the US Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis.
She established that many Jews exiled from Spain and Portugal in the 1490s were involved in international commerce, and would have maintained a network. When the Spanish started importing chocolate around 1520, Jews still in Spain — who had converted to Christianity (Conversos) or with family still there would easily have found out about it.
The exiled Jews diffused chocolate throughout Europe setting up workshops and working with cacao in various cities. Prinz writes that the first coffee shop in England, The Angle, was opened in around 1650 in Oxford by a Converso Jew named Jacob; and he would have sold hot chocolate. The site is now the Grand Café.
The industry had and still has a dark underbelly. “Chocolate making Jews in Bayonne weren’t treated so well,” Prinz says. They were banned from living in the city centre and had to schlep heavy piedres — large stones used in the production process — daily to the city. “They suffered horrible disabilities as a result,” she says sadly.
And today, she explains, chocolate production in West Africa is plagued by child labour. She prefers her chocolate to be from one of the other cacao growing countries — all within 20 degrees north or south of the equator.
She admits to eating chocolate daily but when asked what her favourite flavour is, Prinz struggles. “It depends on the day; I like dark chocolate with almonds or with ginger,” she smiles.
Quizzed on what makes good chocolate, she explains the answer is not so simple: “There are so many factors — quality of the beans, how long they are roasted, how they are processed and any additional ingredients. Also the type of sugar or vanilla used and a myriad of ethical and sustainability issues.”
Her book will be launched in the UK on June 30, when Prinz will be appearing in conversation with Baroness Julia Neuberger at West London Synagogue. There will be the chance to buy signed copies of the book and an opportunity to sample and buy chocolate from top chocolatiers.