The History of Chocolate

Chocolate is enjoyed all around the world today. Although the chocolate we know may have been “perfected” by European chocolatiers, the origins of the confectionary stretch back thousands of years, to South America.

Mesoamerican History

The first known chocolate was consumed as a drink. The Olmec, the first Major Mexican civilization, enjoyed chocolate in this form as long ago as 1500 BCE. However, archaeological evidence found in Honduras suggests that the drink from that time was very different to the hot chocolate we know today. It was likely that the white pulp from around the cacao bean, from which cocoa is derived, was fermented to produce an alcoholic drink.

The Mayan people were also known to use cacao beans, which grew in their backyards, to produce a bitter, frothy drink. Mayan hieroglyphs point to the use of chocolate not just in everyday life but also for ceremonial purposes.

In the 15th century CE, the Aztecs dominated the Mesoamerican region. They adopted the use of cacao in their own culture. They associated the bean and its products with Xochiquetzal, the goddess of fertility, and chocolaty beverages were offered up to her as sacred offerings. Like earlier South Americans, the Aztecs made a frothy drink from the cacao bean. They seasoned it with vanilla, chili pepper and achiote. This drink was believed to fight fatigue, likely due to its theobromine content. Theobromine is a mood enhancer.

A Meeting of Worlds

The first time Europeans made contact with chocolate in any form was when Montezuma, the then chief of the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan, was introduced to Hernan Cortes, a Spanish conquistador in the 16th century. The conquistadors were fascinated by the brown frothy drink, noting that it was drunk out of gold and silver goblets, and sometimes directly out of cacao shells.

Chocolate was first commercially imported to Spain, in 1585. At this point, it was still served only in beverage form, albeit in a less bitter and frothy manifestation than that enjoyed by Montezuma and his court. In Europe, where it was then referred to as “chocolatl”, the drink was mixed with vanilla and cold.

The Spanish court became very fond of the drink. Within a century, its popularity had spread throughout much of the rest of Europe. The drink was so famous, in fact, that the Spanish began to enslave Mesoamericans to produce and farm cacao. Even with increased production, however, ”chocolatl” was still available only to an elite few. Instead of growing it overseas and shipping it in at great costs, the Spanish soon began to farm their own cacao, at which point production exploded. Export around Europe increased heavily and by 1657, the first chocolate house had opened in London.

The roots of modern chocolate

It wasn’t until the industrial revolution, hundreds of years later, that chocolate as we know it today was manufactured, and it began to be consumed in the form of shiny slabs and bars. This was due to the invention of large mechanical mills, which could squeeze out cocoa butter – an essential ingredient in solid chocolate.

Another huge step came in 1875, when milk chocolate was first produced. Originally a candle maker, Daniel Peter joined his father in making chocolate. He was later assisted by a neighbor – a baby food manufacturer who helped Peter isolate the water content from milk to stop chocolate from mildewing. This neighbor was none other than Henri Nestlé.

Since then, chocolate has been enjoyed in its modern, solid form in a myriad of shapes, sizes and flavours.

Attached Images:
  •  License: Royalty Free or iStock source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Chocolate.jpg
  •  License: Royalty Free or iStock source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Mayan_people_and_chocolate.jpg
  •  License: Royalty Free or iStock source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Pietro_Longhi_025.jpg

Jeff writes for Chocolate Time – the South African home for all types of novelty chocolates imaginable.

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