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History of Chocolate

Discover the history of chocolate. It had its origins in South and Central America, with the Maya using chocolate in religious ceremonies, and the Aztecs fuelling their armies with it. By the sixteenth century the Spanish conquistadors recorded that it was being used as a form of currency.

Imagine the energy cacao must have given them for it to have been used in these ways. So extraordinary then, that chocolate has become the sugary fatty confection that we know today. What is the history of chocolate that has brought it to this place?

The cacao tree (Theobroma is its formal name) evolved in the lowland rainforests of the Upper Amazon Basin. Not much is known about it in its wild, early form.

cacaopodsWhen Carl Linnaeus, the 18th century Swedish naturalist, named the cacao tree, Theobroma cacao, meaning ‘the food of the gods’, he was not exaggerating. The cacao tree evolved in the lowland rainforests of the Upper Amazon Basin. Not much is known about it in its wild, early form. Some experts believe it’s possible that the tree we know today is the result of selective cross-breeding by prehistoric South American peoples, or perhaps it evolved naturally. Either way, two distinct strains – criollo and forastero – made the long journey north, carried by over time by animals and human, from the lower, eastern flanks of the Andes to Central America, where the Mokaya people of the Pacific coast and the pre-Olmecs living around the coast of the Gulf of Mexico cultivated cacao and came to understand its true benefits.

Chocolate- making was born in Mexico with the Pre Olmec and Mokaya people some 2000 years BC.


Chocolate- making was born in Mexico with the Pre Olmec and Mokaya people. Traces of theobromine, a bitter alkaloid found in cacao that resembles caffeine, have recently been found on fragments of drinking vessels that date back as far as 1900 B.C., in the Mexican state of Chiapas (Antiquity Vol 81 Issue 314 December 2007).

By 250 AD, the Mayans in Southern Mexico were so awed by the strength and energy cacao gave, that it had become integral to their ceremonial…

mayantemplemayanpainting and religious lives. Children were anointed with perfumed cacao in naming ceremonies; and the elite class were buried with bowls, of frothy cacao drinks to give them the strength to make their way into the next life. The Maya were enjoying a cultural explosion that saw fantastic cities, palaces and temples spring up throughout northern Guatemala and the southern Yucatán in Mexico. They painted, carved, sculpted, made pottery, wrote books and, in their writings, arts and crafts, they celebrated the rituals that had sprung up around cacao. There are gods depicted doing all kinds of things with cacao pods and beans, from offering up plates piled high with beans
to piercing their ears and splattering blood all over them. Children were anointed with perfumed cacao in naming ceremonies; sacrificial victims were plied with it before they went to their death; and the elite class were buried with bowls, jars and cylindrical vases filled with frothy cacao drinks to give them the strength and energy they needed to make their way into the next life.

In its early history cacao was drunk, not eaten. The Maya and Aztecs turned this into an art form going to immense lengths…

aztec…to make it foam so smoothing out bitterness and intensifying flavour. The Maya probably drank all kinds of cacao mixtures, some hot, some cold, some warm, spicy or sweet, adding herbs, honey or chilli peppers for flavour, or maize starch as a thickener. The cacao and maize drinks were highly nutritious, combining the amino acids that were released by soaking the maize kernel in lime, plus all the life-giving elements that cacao offers. After the roasted beans had been pounded and water added, a foam rose up on the surface and this froth was considered the most desirable part of the drink. The Maya, and the Aztecs after them, went to extraordinary lengths to increase the foam, endlessly pouring the cacao and water from a great height from one vessel into another. This is a very natural way of agitating the cacao to remove the bitterness and bring out its intense flavour notes, which in its modern, mechanized form is known as conching. The Aztecs seem to have preferred their chocolate drink cold; they flavoured it with chilli, honey flowers, peanut butter and vanilla.

Europeans first came face to face with cacao when in the sixteenth century Spanish conquistadores came to Mesoamerica…

herman…It was not long before the more adventurous among them started drinking it on special occasions. It was their champagne. In 1519, Hernán Cortés and his crew watched the great Aztec ruler Moctezuma knocking back cacao in huge quantities, fascinated to see how assiduously his attendants whipped up a foam before serving it up. A little later, the sixteenth-century conquistador Bernal Díaz describes seeing the Aztec emperor Motecuhzoma consume vast quantities of a cacao drink, which he was told was for success with women. It was not long before the Europeans began to try this magic elixir, but it was reserved initially for special occasions. Bernal Diaz wrote of a banquet in Mexico City in 1538, where the ladies drank cacahuatl out of golden goblets. Crucially, though, they began to adapt it to their European tastes by adding cane sugar and substituting cinnamon, black pepper and aniseed for chilli and achiote. They also found a way of making instant hot chocolate, by manufacturing a tablet of ground cacao that could be dissolved with sugar in hot water.

Cash actually grew on trees back then! Cacao was considered so valuable that it was used as a currency.

cashtree…One sixteenth century chronicler noted that a rabbit was worth ten beans and a slave could be bought for a hundred beans. Cacao was more valuable than gold.

By mid 16th chocolate was a common addiction across Mesoamerica. The unfortunate Bishop of Chiapas was poisoned by a bowl of chocolate …


..laced with poison for trying to ban his congregation from drinking chocolate in church. There’s a famous story about a group of passionate chocoholics who turned nasty when someone tried to get between them and their drinking chocolate. The trouble began when a bishop of Chiapas, Mexico, became irritated with the ladies of his congregation, who insisted that they needed to drink hot chocolate during mass because of their weak stomachs. He banned chocolate from the cathedral and threatened to excommunicate anyone who ate or drank during services. Unwilling to do without their mid-mass fix, the ladies began to attend church in the convents instead of the cathedral. Despite being told about rumours of death threats against him, the bishop stood firm. The cathedral emptied altogether and shortly afterwards the bishop was found dead, having drunk a bowl of chocolate laced with poison. To this day, there’s a Mexican proverb that warns: ‘Beware the chocolate of Chiapas’.

Chocolate was first recorded in Europe in 1544, when a group of Dominican Friars presented a Guatamalan delegation at the court of Prince Philip of Spain.


In 1544, a group of Dominican Friars introduced a delegation of Guatemalan Maya to Prince Philip in Spain. Among the offerings they brought were clay gourds filled with beaten chocolate, so perhaps this was chocolate’s debut in Europe. Either way, it wasn’t imported officially until 1585, so it wasn’t an overnight sensation. Yet during the first half of the seventeenth century, it became wildly popular at the Spanish court, where it was drunk hot, spicy and sweet.

Casanova was another chocolate devotee.


He fervently believed it to be an aphrodisiac, famously drinking it to enhance his love-making. Cacao has through its long history often been associated with romance and sex. Cacao was revered for its aphrodisiacal properties among the Maya and the Aztecs in ancient times. In the eighteenth century, the notorious Marquis de Sade was implicated in a scandal involving the known aphrodisiac Spanish fly, with which he is alleged to have spiked the chocolate pastilles on offer at one of his balls, provoking a spontaneous, frenzied orgy.

Chocolate is behind a litany of crimes of passion, revenge and mercy killings.


Even Pope Clement XIV was allegedly murdered with a cup of bitter tasting chocolate. Because of its dark, rich flavours and pungent aroma, chocolate was an effective way to mask the bitter taste of poison.

With demand for cacao rising rapidly, the colonialists in New Spain saw cacao growing as a way to make vast sums of money. Enslaved natives Indians…


…died in alarming numbers on the early plantations. The conquistadors were not slow to realise the money making potential in growing cacao. At first, they made slaves of the local population and put them to work on the plantations, but then Pope Paul III outlawed the enslavement of Indians in 1537. So they instituted a legal system of forced work called encomienda, exacting tribute from the natives in the form of labour in return for teaching them Spanish and Christianity. But that didn’t work either because the Indians began to die in alarming numbers from Old World diseases and epidemics against which they had no immunity. Shockingly, disease and maltreatment meant that by the end of the seventeenth century, only about a tenth of the Indian population had survived the hostile takeover of their country.

The first chocolate house opened in London in 1657 and was an instant success.


The brilliant diarist Samuel Pepys even mentions that he ‘went to Mr Bland’s and there drank my morning draft of chocolate’.

 Chocolate Houses enjoyed a huge surge in popularity across the capitals of Europe in the seventeenth century, much as independent coffee shops are today. They were meeting places for the exchange of all the latest news and gossip. The hot chocolate, made from rough 100% cacao would have tasted nothing like the hot chocolate people think of today, but it would certainly have given them a buzz!

While industries grew up around the drinking of chocolate in Europe. Chocolate-pot lids were pierced with holes to fit the molinillo beating stick…


...and special drinking cups called trembleuses, were devised. In the same way that in China tea spawned an elaborate drinking and an array of equipment designed to perfect its enjoyment, a whole industry grew up in Europe around the drinking of cacao. As making chocolate became more mechanized, there was an explosion of chocolate-related equipment and merchandise. First, chocolate-pot lids were pierced with holes to fit the molinillo beating stick, a design that is still on sale in Mexican markets today. The French developed silver chocolate pots with built in molinillos (or moussoirs, as they called them), and porcelain cups and saucers also became popular. One of the most intriguing of the specialized chocolate ceramics was the trembleuse stand, devised for people with shaky hands by the Marqués de Mancera, Viceroy of Mexico, himself a palsy sufferer. The trembleuse (known as a mancerina in Mexico) is a special saucer with a cup holder that steadied the cup, like a reinforced, exaggerated saucer lip. Since chocolate was often administered as nourishment for the old and the sick, it became a standard piece in every chocolate set.

Tree cuttings were first taken to Africa in the 19th century. By 1991, Africa was the source of just over half of the world’s cacao…


...while Mexico, cacao’s birthplace, supplied only 1.5%. Cacao made it to Africa via the islands of Principe and Sao Tomé, west of Gabon, where the Portuguese planted forastero cuttings taken from Brazil. More cuttings were taken to Equatorial New Guinea and the colonies of Portuguese Africa. Then, in 1879, a West African blacksmith took some plants home to Ghana, where the British governor seized upon the idea of growing cacao and encouraged its cultivation. Cacao then journeyed on to Nigeria and to the Ivory Coast, which is now the world’s largest producer. Moving east, the Spanish took it to the Philippines, the British to Sri Lanka and the Dutch to Java and Sumatra. By 1991, Africa was the source of just over half of the world’s cacao, while Mexico, cacao’s birthplace, supplied only 1.5%. I found out from Willem at Daarnhouwer & Co that the beans I use to make my Madagascan 71% chocolate bar are grown from trees that arrived on the island as seedlings from Venezuela 100 years ago! Once Venezuelan criollo, they have now developed their own lively fruit flavours.

In the 1750’s, Joseph Fry in Bristol began producing chocolate for the UK market, all of it handmade.


It wasn’t until the end of the century that he patented a grinding machine powered by a James Watt steam engine. Even then, chocolate was still predominantly a drink.

The industrial revolution that swept through Europe in the 19th century did not pass chocolate by. 1828 saw a breakthrough from the Dutch chemist…

...and chocolate maker Conrad Van Houten, who for the first time separated cocoa solids from cocoa butter so making cocoa powder. Th is was to become the building block of many mass market chocolate products. Things began to move forward in the nineteenth century, when food pioneers experimented with ways of extracting the cacao butter from the nibs, turning cacao into powder and removing the bitterness by treating it with heat or alkali. The crucial breakthrough came in 1828, when the Dutch chemist and chocolate-maker Conrad Van Houten built a hydraulic press that separated cacao butter from the liquor and left a dry solid that could be pulverized into powder, which he then treated with alkali salts to neutralize the acidity and make it easier to mix with water. This process became known as ‘Dutching’. Hot chocolate suddenly became twice as digestible and a lot easier to prepare. Dutching makes the chocolate darker – which dispels the idea that the darker the chocolate, the better it is, because it also strips out some of the goodness. Needless to say, I don’t Dutch. It’s a process used mainly by large manufacturers.

Joseph Fry made the first chocolate bar in 1847 and went on to open the first chocolate bar factory. The first milk chocolate bar was made in 1875…


…after Henri Nestle had developed condensed milk. Now that cacao butter could be extracted from the beans, ‘eating’ chocolate became a possibility because the butter could be used to bind and coat a mix of milled sugar and cacao nibs to make a chocolate bar. Joseph Fry made this discovery in 1847 and went on to open the first chocolate bar factory; by now, roasting, winnowing and grinding had all become mechanized. In 1875, the Swiss chocolatier Daniel Peter launched a milk chocolate bar after his neighbour Henri Nestlé developed condensed milk. Too much water in chocolate adversely affects its shelf life and texture, so Nestlé’s dehydrated milk formula was key to the future of the milk chocolate bar.

Conching (the process that refines the cacao solids, drives off bitterness and brings out the flavours) was invented as a result of a happy accident…

conch… when a Lindt employee inadvertently left a grinding machine on all night. But chocolate was still grittier and more bitter than it is today because there was one more important nineteenth-century innovation to come: a process known as conching, which involves heating and grinding the cacao solids to make them smoother and more integrated, then aerating them to drive off bitterness and bring out the flavours. Conching was apparently the result of a happy accident in the factory of Rodolphe Lindt, after one of Lindt’s employees left a grinding machine running all night. It’s not recorded whether the worker was sacked before he was promoted, or simply sacked so that Rodolphe Lindt could take the glory for a new invention. Either way, chocolate factories all over Europe were soon resounding to the deafening rhythm of row upon row of conching machines.

In the last 150 years, as manufacturing methods have advanced, the mass market has transformed chocolate from the all- time healthy drink…


…into the all-time unhealthy luxury. Your average chocolate confectionery bar contains no more than 5–10% cacao liquor; the rest is mainly fat and sugar. There is nothing about these bars that the Aztecs would recognise!

Cacao is now a globally traded commodity. With demand rising there are regular scares about its availability and price.


On July 17, 2010 Mr Anthony Ward aka Chocfinger bought up 7% of the world’s cacao crop sparking fears that the world’s chocolate manufacturers would be held to ransom as the world cocoa price rose to its highest level since 1977. This spectacular trade ended in spectacular disaster when his company Armajaro overstretched itself and loss making, was forced into a fire sale in November 2013. Cacao is now a global business, a far cry from the ancient wild cacao trees in the Amazon basin. Happily events like this have if anything helped wake people up to the benefits of small scale quality beans with provenance and flavour. Viva Cacao!

In the face of regular scares about the availability of sufficient cocoa beans to feed the world’s increasing desire, the large chocolate companies have started …

hershey… working on genetically modified cacao.

In the past few years, teams of scientists working with both Mars and Hersheys have started mapping the chocolate tree genome in the hope of developing a cacao, genetically modified to counteract the perceived threats disease, drought and under supply in the face of rising worldwide demand. This is undoubtedly the largest threat that the world of chocolate has ever faced, making the prioritising of output over flavour even more extreme, not to mention unleashing the wider unknowns associated with genetic modification.

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