What could be more comforting on a cold winter’s day than rich, velvety hot chocolate? Sip the steamy, frothy goodness from your favorite cup and all’s right with the world.
No matter how you get your daily chocolate fix – bar, bonbon, chip or cocoa – a good way to enhance your enjoyment is to learn more about chocolate’s fascinating history.
Like me, some of you fellow chocoholics are familiar with chocolate’s origins in Mesoamerica and how Don Hernán Cortés brought cacao to Spain after conquering the Aztecs in the early 16th century. But did you know Jewish traders played a critical role in popularizing chocolate around the world?
In his debut picture book, The Chocolate King (Apples & Honey Press, 2022), Michael Leventhal highlights chocolate’s little known Jewish connection. When Spanish Jews were forced to flee the country during the Inquisition, they took their chocolate making skills with them.
This tasty bit of historical fiction is set in early 17th century Bayonne, where we meet young chocolate lover Benjamin. Not only does he love to eat chocolate, he knows more about it “than most people in the whole of France.”
There’s nothing he’d like more than to make incredible hot chocolate just like his grandfather Marco, who was known in Spain as El Rey del Chocolate – The Chocolate King.
Benjamin loves listening to Marco tell the story of how he first learned to make his chocolate:
It all began in Spain, where we used to live . . . An explorer who visited the faraway lands of America taught me a brilliant Aztec recipe.
Marco thrives selling hot chocolate to rich travelers at the port. But the day comes when he and other non-Catholics are forced to leave Spain. One night when Benjamin is still a baby, they pack the bare essentials and what Marco considers his family’s treasure — cocoa beans — and set out to forge a new life.
After arriving in France, they discover no one has ever heard of or tasted chocolate before. Benjamin’s father Andreas is sure no one wants their chocolate, but Marco’s determined to show them how truly delicious it is, so he continues to make his special recipe.
As Benjamin gets older, he wants to help make the chocolate along with his parents under Marco’s strict supervision, but he’s only allowed to “watch, listen, and smell.” Benjamin is relegated to the sidelines as his grandmother grinds the roasted cocoa beans.
Every night, Benjamin can only dream of becoming a Chocolate King like Marco.
Now, making good chocolate and selling it are two very different things. Chocolate is expensive and even those who can afford it turn their noses up at the strange, muddy-looking concoction. It seems Andreas had been right: people aren’t willing to try something new. And so the family continues struggling to make ends meet.
Yet one day, “something extraordinary happened.” When Benjamin tries to sneak into the kitchen to watch his grandfather at work, he crashes into some shelves when his mother chases after him to do his chores. Everything clatters onto the floor and a large pot of chocolate topples over, splattering Benjamin from head to toe.
Benjamin tumbles onto the street, right into the path of a golden carriage. At first the angry passenger thinks Benjamin is covered in mud, but Benjamin quickly corrects him – it’s chocolate; “My grandpa is the Chocolate King!”
The passenger, puzzled that there could be another king, gets out of his carriage to investigate. It’s the King of France himself! As the divine smell of chocolate drifts to his nostrils, he asks to taste it.
Marco rushes to prepare a cup of his finest chocolate and presents it to the King, who loves it so much he guzzles four cups and even purchases ten more flasks!
And so, with the King’s patronage, word spreads rapidly as people clamor to try hot chocolate for themselves. There are long lines of customers and orders from all over the country.
Soon the family can afford to import the finest cocoa beans from around the globe, and they even purchase spices to add new flavors to their scrumptious drink. Best of all, Marco finally teaches Benjamin his secret recipe. Now he’s a Chocolate King too!
Young readers won’t be able to resist this fun, delectable tale – who doesn’t like chocolate? They’ll be hooked by the title and instantly begin drooling over a drink with “a crown of foam that wobbled and stuck to Benjamin’s nose.”
They’ll root for Benjamin throughout, identifying with his desire to emulate his grandfather, and then be happy to see how he ultimately saves the day via a serendipitous catastrophe. Imagine meeting the King of France!
Kids might be surprised to learn that chocolate was originally enjoyed as a hot beverage long before there were chocolate bars, chocolate chips, or powdered cocoa.
Laura Catalán’s winsome, detailed illustrations rendered in a warm, chocolaty palette perfectly complement Leventhal’s lively, carefully researched text.
Eager eyes will enjoy the historically accurate architecture, period garb, and delightful touches of humor, as they spot a chocolate mustache, a laughing horse, relatable facial expressions, an eye roll here and there. All go a long way towards making these long-ago people accessible and alive to a modern audience, and they will surely giggle over the King’s big burp. 🙂
Though first and foremost a charming story, The Chocolate King’s historical context sets the stage for meaningful discussions about family traditions, religious intolerance, immigration, and the benefits of persistence and hard work. It’s an inspiring example of how immigrants have had to leave everything behind to make new lives for themselves in strange lands, often making valuable contributions to their adopted cultures.
To top everything off, there’s a gorgeous fold-out spread that includes “A Bite-Sized History of Chocolate,” how chocolate is produced “From Bean to Bar,” and Claudia Roden’s recipe for a “Thick Hot Chocolate Drink.” Yum!!!!
☕️ Chocolate a la taza by Claudia Roden 🇪🇸
After reading this drool worthy story we were excited to try Claudia Roden’s recipe for “Thick Hot Chocolate Drink.” In case you’re not familiar with Claudia, she’s the esteemed British author of The Book of Jewish Food: An Odyssey from Samarkand to New York (Knopf, 1996), which won the National Jewish Book Award and the James Beard Foundation Cookbook of the Year Award.
Her recipe headnote says:
Thick, creamy, rich hot chocolate served with churros (long, ribbed, crisp dough fritters) is a popular breakfast in Spain. Chocolaterías specialize in the drink, which is made with dark bitter chocolate and a little cornflour to thicken the milk. The amount of sugar needed depends on the sweetness of the chocolate.
This hot chocolate is like pudding – good for drinking but even more fun when used as a dipping sauce for churros. Simply divine. The Spanish know how to live! 🙂
A nice change from the usual powdered mix variety topped with marshmallows or whipped cream. Easy to prepare once the chocolate is grated (the resident leprechaun made quick work of it).
Here’s to Marco and Benjamin, the new Chocolate King!
Thick Hot Chocolate Drink
- 2 teaspoons cornflour (cornstarch)
- 500 ml (2 cups) whole milk
- 100 g (4 ounces) grated dark chocolate
- 2-3 teaspoons sugar, or to taste
- Dissolve the cornflour in 2 tablespoons of cold milk.
- Bring the rest of the milk to the boil in a saucepan and pour in the cornflour mixture, stirring with a wooden spoon.
- Cook over a low heat for 2 to 3 minutes, stirring until the milk thickens slightly and becomes creamy.
- Add the chocolate and keep stirring until it has melted entirely. Then stir in the sugar to taste.
THE CHOCOLATE KING
written by Michael Leventhal
recipe by Claudia Roden
illustrated by Laura Catalán
published by Apples & Honey Press, 2022
Historical Fiction Picture Book for ages 4+, 40 pp.
*Includes foldout with history timeline, chocolate making process, and recipe for hot chocolate
♥️ Visit the publisher’s website for interviews with Michael and Laura, as well as a free downloadable Jewish Chocolate History Timeline.
🇪🇸 SPECIAL BOOK GIVEAWAY!! 😍
The publisher has generously provided a copy of The Chocolate King for one lucky Alphabet Soup reader. For a chance to win, please leave a comment at this post no later than midnight Tuesday (EST) February 8, 2022. You may also enter by sending an email with CHOCOLATE in the subject line to: readermail (at) jamakimrattigan (dot) com. Giveaway open to U.S. residents only, please. Good Luck!
♥️ If you’re interested in more mouthwatering chocolate recipes, check out Michael’s new cookbook. All proceeds benefit Chai Cancer Care!
*Interior spreads from The Chocolate King, text copyright © 2022 Michael Leventhal, illustrations © 2022 Laura Catalán, published by Apples & Honey Press. All rights reserved.
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***Copyright © 2022 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.