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Chocolate - a brief history

Updated on August 12, 2017
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Perhaps no other snack in this modern world has garnered as much popularity and fondness as chocolate has. It can be enjoyed on its own or in the form of drinks, ice creams, cakes, yoghurt and many more. It can be found in one form or another in almost every snack, pastry and dessert shop out there, and even in most restaurants and cafes. And it is famed not only for its purported aphrodisiac properties, but also for its scientifically proven protective effects on the human cardiovascular system.

In spite of its widespread popularity, do you know that chocolate was never discovered by the people of Europe, Asia and Africa until about 500 years ago? In other words, it is fair to say that chocolate is a relatively new food for most of the world. And do you know that the cocoa bean, which is the primary ingredient used in chocolate-making, was once so highly valued that it was used as a form of currency? Read on to find out more!

Cocoa fruits from a cocoa tree, the primary raw material for making chocolate
Cocoa fruits from a cocoa tree, the primary raw material for making chocolate | Source
Sculpture of a Mayan nobleman holding cocoa paste
Sculpture of a Mayan nobleman holding cocoa paste | Source

Cocoa in Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica

Cocoa, although not known to most of the world prior to the 1500s, has been in existence in the Amazon and the Mesoamerican region since time immemorial. It has been an integral part of the Mayan and Aztec cultures since their early beginnings, being a highly-prized material in many areas of life. The Mayans considered cocoa to be a divine representation of life and fertility, referring to it as a “food for the gods” and utilizing it in religious offerings and rituals. The Aztecs also had a spiritual interpretation of cocoa, in which they believed that it was a plant brought to earth from paradise by the deity Quetzalcoatl, who descended to earth on the beam of a morning star.

Both the Aztecs and the Mayans devised methods in making a thick, bitter drink from cocoa. This drink was appropriately called “xocolatl” in the Nahuatl language of the Aztecs, which means “bitter water.” Xocolatl was recognized not only for its spiritual interpretations, but also for its health and nutritious properties. At times, various types of spices and peppers would be added into this bitter drink to add flavour, since sugar did not exist in these civilizations at that time.

Since cocoa was a common commodity between the Mayans and the Aztecs, and since cocoa was so highly regarded with value in both these civilizations, it was subsequently utilized as money by the 1400s. Trade in much of the Mesoamerican region in the 1400s was conducted using cocoa as a primary form of currency. In fact, the Aztec Empire required its citizens to pay taxes and its subdued kingdoms to pay tribute in the form of cocoa beans. Cocoa became so valuable that merchants from regions that did not plant cocoa were willing to make lengthy journeys to other centres of trade just to acquire this prized commodity.

Cocoa beans derived from the cocoa tree. Similar to almonds?
Cocoa beans derived from the cocoa tree. Similar to almonds? | Source
Hernán Cortés, the Spanish conquistador widely credited for the introduction of chocolate to Europe
Hernán Cortés, the Spanish conquistador widely credited for the introduction of chocolate to Europe | Source
Aztec artwork depicting Cortés' meeting with King Monteczuma, with La Malinche acting as the conquistador's translator
Aztec artwork depicting Cortés' meeting with King Monteczuma, with La Malinche acting as the conquistador's translator | Source

Discovery of cocoa by the European world

Cocoa was not known to the rest of the world, particularly the peoples of Europe, Africa and Asia, until the arrival of Christopher Columbus on the shores of the New World. In his fourth voyage to the New World in 1502, Columbus was forced to land on the Bay Islands (today part of Honduras) after encountering a fierce storm. While exploring the islands, he happened to stumble upon a Mayan vessel that carried large cargos of cocoa beans. Never having seen cocoa beans before, he thought that the vessel was carrying loads of almonds and did not proceed to investigate them further. Nonetheless, he did bring back some of the cocoa beans to Spain alongside many more interesting treasures that overshadowed the potential value of the new commodity. The humble cocoa was ignored as mere almonds.

It was not until the arrival of Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés in 1519 that the true nature and value of cocoa was discovered. During a visit to the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, the Aztec king Monteczuma and his subjects thought that Cortés himself was a descendant of the deity Quetzalcoatl, consequently treating him and his men with lavish meals and gifts. Among these was the xocolatl beverage, served in golden goblets, as well as jars of cocoa beans. Cortés and his men also noticed that King Monteczuma would consume several goblets of xocolatl before entering his harem, which was then said to have given rise to the popular belief that chocolate possesses aphrodisiac properties. Further into their explorations of the Aztec Empire and its surroundings, the Spaniards came to realize that cocoa was not only the primary ingredient for a common drink, but also a common currency and a vital part of religious rituals.

The Spanish conquest of the Americas, which resulted in the collapse of the Aztec Empire and the establishment of New Spain, marked a turning point in the history of chocolate as much as it did in world history. Cocoa became more widely cultivated by the Spaniards in view of its potential to bring wealth, not so much from exporting it back to Spain, but rather because cocoa itself was a form of currency. Yes, the idea behind these cocoa plantations was initially to literally “plant money,” so that it could be used to “buy” gold from the Aztecs.

Due to its bitter taste, xocolatl in itself initially did not appeal to most of the Spaniards who made their new homes in the Americas. Nevertheless, they developed a new method of preparing this aversive drink – by heating it until it liquefied completely and drinking it hot. The addition of spices familiar in Europe into the drink further enhanced its appeal. During Cortés’ voyage back to Spain in 1528, he brought with him, amongst others, gifts of cocoa beans and the tools necessary to prepare them, to be presented to King Carlos I. With the introduction of this new beverage into the Spanish royalty and nobility, chocolate thus made its grand beginnings in Europe.

Chocolate being enjoyed as a luxurious beverage amongst the European nobility
Chocolate being enjoyed as a luxurious beverage amongst the European nobility | Source
Tools used in chocolate-making in 17th and 18th century Europe
Tools used in chocolate-making in 17th and 18th century Europe | Source
Chocolate-making in 17th century Spain
Chocolate-making in 17th century Spain | Source

Chocolate craze in Europe

While xocolatl in its original, bitter form was downright repulsive to many Spaniards, the idea of blending it with sugar immediately turned this nauseating beverage into a celebrated delight. Sugar was not known in the Americas prior to the Spanish conquest, thus it was not until cocoa reached Spain that this idea came to materialize. Deriving from the Nahuatl word xocolatl (in which the Spaniards could not pronounce the “tl” part properly), the name “chocolate” subsequently came to be used.

The secrets of preparing the chocolate beverage were entrusted to the Spanish friars. The friars concocted various new recipes for making chocolate beverages, utilizing ingredients such as sugar, vanilla, cinnamon and many other types of spices, in order to better suit Spanish tastes. This newly discovered beverage won the hearts of even the Spanish king himself that it was subsequently decreed to be a luxurious delight reserved only for the nobility. Amazingly enough, the Spanish friars and nobility managed to preserve chocolate as a secret from the rest of the world for almost a century after its discovery.

Soon enough, cocoa shipments from the New World began pouring into Spain, spurring the growth of shops that served this wonderful beverage mainly to the wealthy. Chocolate made its maiden entry into the French court after the marriage of the Spanish Princess Anne of Austria to King Louis XIII of France in 1615. It immediately became a hit amongst the French nobility, becoming a popular element in many works of French art and literature of the era. From one monarch to another, chocolate soon infiltrated almost every royal household in Europe. Chocolate houses serving the wealthy and aristocratic were established in Paris, London and several other cities throughout Europe.

Chocolate remained largely a privilege for the royalty and the elite until the invention of the steam engine in the 1700s that revolutionized the process of chocolate-making. Mass production of chocolate became possible, and its price soon dropped into a range affordable for most people. By 1755, chocolate had made its way not only to almost every region of Europe, but also to the United States. The now widespread availability of chocolate meant that the global demand for cocoa soared rapidly, making cocoa plantation a lucrative business. Because cocoa could only be grown in the more temperate climates of the tropics, cocoa plantations mushroomed in the many European colonies in Africa, effectively transforming the continent into the world’s largest producer of cocoa until this very day, overtaking even the Americas where it is native.

Swiss milk chocolate
Swiss milk chocolate | Source
A piece of chocolate bar dipped in molten chocolate
A piece of chocolate bar dipped in molten chocolate | Source

Chocolate in many new forms

As chocolate infiltrated the global market on a large scale, many new and innovative methods of manufacturing and preparing it were developed. In 1828, the Dutch chemist Coenraad van Houten developed new methods in treating cocoa mass to remove the bitter taste, make it more water-soluble and produce a powdered form of it. His product became known as “Dutch cocoa,” which subsequently led to the production of solid chocolate.

The German company, Jordan & Timaeus in Dresden, is credited for producing the world’s first milk chocolate in 1839, while the first modern chocolate bar was invented by Joseph Fry in 1847. Nonetheless, when it comes to chocolate, perhaps no other names stand out more than Cadbury, Nestlé and Whittaker’s. From humble beginnings in Birmingham, England, the two brothers, John and Benjamin Cadbury, developed a company that has now become a household name in every part of the world. During the latter half of the 1800s and the early 1900s, it was Cadbury that helped propel the popularity of chocolates even further through its plethora of differently-flavoured chocolate products, such as Dairy Milk, Whole Nut, Flake and many others. Nestlé, on the other hand, is best remembered for being the Swiss company that first brought milk chocolate into the market on a large scale in 1875. One more name that is notable in the world of chocolate is Rudolf Lindt, the Swiss gentleman who is credited for developing the “conching” method used to produce refined chocolate that melts in the mouth.

How chocolate is made today

Today, chocolate comes in many different shapes and sizes. From being a sacred drink from “divine realms” to a coveted beverage of aristocratic circles, xocolatl or chocolate is now a daily delight available to even the common man of the street. But the most striking of all is this: if you think money cannot be planted, think again – the Mayans, Aztecs and Spanish conquistadores did!

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© 2013 James

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    • Shades-of-truth profile image

      Emily Tack 2 years ago from USA

      I am not much of a chocolate eater, but enjoyed reading your article about it!