The Origin of Chocolate
The origin of chocolate began over 5,000 years ago and like many of the world’s treasures, it all started in Latin America in ancient Mesoamerica (present-day Mexico). That is said to be where the first cacao fruit trees were discovered. Although the exact location of that discovery has been heavily debated, as some also say it was Honduras, while others say it was Ecuador. For much of its history, chocolate was a bitter beverage, not the sweet treat that it is today.
How did cacao plants lead to chocolate?
Theobroma cacao is a tropical evergreen tree that can grow anywhere from 20 feet to 60 feet tall. Chocolate is made from the fruit of cacao trees, which is found in pods that grow at the top of the tree. Each pod contains around 40 cacao beans that can be dried and roasted to create cocoa beans. Cacao trees tend to grow higher in their natural environment, sometimes exceeding 60 feet, which made the cultivation of cacao fruit a challenge.
Chocolate began as a fermented beverage sometime between 1900 BC to 1500 BC. The Olmec civilization is said to be the first to use cacao to create a ceremonial chocolate drink that was used during rituals and for medicinal purposes. The chocolate drink did not taste like the chocolate we know and love today, it was considered to be very bitter, as it was mixed with spices or corn puree.
The Olmecs shared their knowledge with the Mayans who created a similar drink by brewing roasted and ground cacao seeds and mixing them with chillies, water and cornmeal. The Mayans and Aztecs believed that cacao beans had magical priorities that were used in sacred rituals and celebrations. In Mayan written history, it is said that chocolate drinks were also used to finalize important transactions.
By the 15th century, the Aztecs elevated the use of cacao. They started using cacao beans as a form of currency to trade for other goods and foods. It has been said that in Aztech culture, cacao beans were considered more valuable than gold.
In 1502, Christopher Columbus discovered the cacao bean on his fourth mission to the Americas during a trade. Columbus took the cacao beans with him back to Spain where it was kept secret for a short period of time.
Legend also states that Aztec King, Montezuma, welcomed Spanish explorer Hernando Cortes and offered him the famous chocolate drink. Cortes did not enjoy the bitter drink, describing it as “a bitter drink for pigs.” Like Columbus, he also returned to Spain with cacao beans.
When did chocolate become sweet?
Sweetened chocolate did not exist until the sixteenth century when the cacao bean became well-known in Europe. The addition of sweeteners (i.e. sugar) propelled the popularity amongst the ruling and upper classes.
In 1847, the creation of the first modern chocolate bar was created by Joseph Fry. During this time, chocolate was being produced by hand. As a result, it was a slow process that was incredibly labor-intensive. For this reason, chocolate was considered a luxury item and was often enjoyed by the upper class for its health benefits and rich taste.
What made chocolate popular?
Even though chocolate was popular among the upper class, because of its laborious process the phenomenon had yet to become widespread. However, the industrial revolution changed everything. In 1828, the chocolate-making process was revolutionized with the invention of the chocolate press. This enabled a shift from making chocolate by hand to utilizing machinery, which drastically reduced the labor involved. The chocolate press could squeeze cocoa butter from roasted cacao beans to create a fine powder that could then be mixed with liquids and poured into molds.
That is the origin of the chocolate we know and love today.