The History of Chocolate
In the Beginning
It is believed that cacao originated in the Amazon Orinoco Basin more than 4,000 years ago, but was used primarily for the sweet pulp that surrounds the beans inside of the pod. It was most likely spread through Central America from Ecuador by humans along coastal trade routes. By 1800 BCE, Theobroma cacao had spread into the Soconusco region of Guatemala and the Pacific coastal plain of Chiapas, Mexico. It was here that cacao is believed to have been first domesticated and used for its beans.
The Barra people – the first pottery-using culture of Mesoamerica – are believed to be the first to process chocolate and consume it in a drink. From here, cacao spread north to the Olmec people of the Mexican Gulf Coast and then to the Mayan civilizations in the Yucatán Peninsula between 600 and 400 BCE.
Chocolate and the Mayans
The earliest evidence of Mayan chocolate usage was found at Colhá in Northern Belize around 600 BCE. It was most commonly used in several different drinks and gruels, the most common being a frothy beverage that was served to royals and newly married couples. Chocolate had an extremely important place in the religious, spiritual and cultural life of the Mayan people and is depicted on vases, murals and other pieces of art. It was used as a gift to the deities, presented at royal burials to ensure comfort in the afterlife and even used as currency.
Chocolate and the Aztecs
Chocolate’s importance in the Aztec empire is clearly documented and traceable through history. When the Aztecs took control of the Soconusco region, cacao was regularly brought back to Tenochtitlan as a tribute payment on the backs of traders. Each trader’s pack would traditionally contain 24,000 beans. It was noted by the 16th century writer Francisco Cervantes de Salazar that at one point, in one of the Emperor of Tenochtitlan’s many warehouses of cocoa beans, 9.6 million beans were being stored!
The Aztec way of making chocolate was very similar to that of the Mayans; both cultures made a frothy drink from the dark beans, with the only real difference being that the Aztec beverage was consumed cool rather than hot. The drink was created by first toasting the beans on a clay comal (griddle) over an open fire, then laboriously grinding the beans on a stone metate until a stream of liquid chocolate trickled off the metate’s edge and into an earthen bowl. Water was then added to create a coarse texture, as well as flavorings such as honey, dried flowers, vanilla, chili, allspice or finely ground corn. In order to achieve the froth on top of the beverage, it was poured from one bowl to another bowl repeatedly until thick foam formed on the top. Many women in Mexico and Central America continue to make traditional drinks this way.
The Aztec name for this bitter drink was chocolate and can be translated to mean 'warm liquid.’ It is rumored that the Emperor Montezuma consumed up to 50 cups a day! When the Spanish arrived in Mexico, they were repulsed by the drink, but as the wine ran out, they started to accumulate a taste for “the food of the gods.”
Chocolate and the Europeans
In 1528, beans were brought to Spain by Hernán Cortés. With the addition of cane sugar, the drink was more enticing to Spanish tastes and quickly found favor with the elite classes. Spain’s Princess Maria Theresa even gifted cocoa beans to Louis XIV for their engagement. Rumors about the aphrodisiac properties of this new concoction began to filter through Spain and eventually through the rest of Europe, continuing for centuries. Casanova of Italy supposedly ate chocolate before engaging in lovemaking and Madame Du Barry reportedly gave it to all of her lovers.
By 1580, the first cocoa bean processing facility had been established in Spain and mass production of beans became possible in the 1700s with the invention of the steam engine. In 1828, the cocoa press was invented by C. J. Van Houten and the Dutching process for cocoa was introduced.
In 1847, an English company introduced the first pieces of a solid eating chocolate, changing the way the world consumed the majority of its chocolate.
Two decades later, Daniel Peter of Vevey, Switzerland, introduced the formula for the world’s first milk chocolate. After spending many years attempting to find a way to incorporate the creamy, smooth taste and texture of milk into chocolate, Peter succeeded by incorporating the sweetened condensed milk that had just recently been invented by his friend and neighbor, Henri Nestlé.
In the late 1800s, cacao was introduced to the continent of Africa. Currently, almost 70 percent of the world’s cocoa comes from West Africa, but the tree—and its delicious fruit—continue to grow all over the world, as long as it is situated within 20° north or south of the Equator.
- Coe, Sophia D and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate: Second Edition. Thames & Hudson: New York, 2007.
Vail, Gabrielle. Cacao Use in Yucatán Among the Pre-Hispanic Maya. Chocolate: History, Culture and Heritage. Eds. Louise Evan Grivetti and Howard-Yana Shapiro. John Wiley & Sons, Inc.: Hoboken, 2009.
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