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More Magic Beans- This History of Chocolate

Stone detail: Ek Ahau, the Mayan Deity of War, trade and cocoa, standing next to a cacao tree. Photo Credit- Enrique Perez Huerta/Demotix/Corbis

That most delicious of desserts that we all crave.  It was rightly named as “food of the gods” by the ancients.  However, the chocolate the pre-Olmec cultures were making was nothing like the chocolate we eat today.  It was consumed as a beverage, and was quite bitter.  The peoples making this drink were living in Mesoamerica prior to the cultures of the Olmecs, Mayan and Aztecs.  Anthropologists from the University of Pennsylvania have found cacao residue on pottery found in Honduras from as early as 1400 BCE.  Some sources place the discovery of chocolate even earlier at 1900 BCE.  Anthropologists surmise native peoples found the cacao plants in the tropical rainforests of Central America.  From there, they cultivated the plants.  The beans were harvested and roasted much like coffee beans.  Then they were ground into a paste and mixed with water, vanilla, honey, chili peppers and other spices to create a drink.  The word “chocolate” comes from the name of this bitter frothy drink-  “xocoatl”.  

This drink was passed to the later cultures of Mesoamerica- the Olmecs, the Aztecs and the Mayans.  These cultures found the drink to be invigorating, probably because of the caffeine, and used it as a mood enhancer and aphrodisiac.  The cacao beans were so prized that they were used as a form of currency by the Aztecs.  Historical sources show the rate of exchange.  One cacao bean could by a tomato.  Thirty beans could buy a rabbit and an entire turkey could be purchased for two hundred beans.  Cacao beans were also demanded as tribute from conquered cities.

Because the cacao bean was believed to have divine and magical properties, it was used in sacred rituals.  In the book The Chocolate Connoisseur by Chloe Doutre-Rossel, she describes Aztec sacrifice victims being given gourds of chocolate mixed with the blood of previous victims to help their mood.  I’m not sure that would reconcile me with being a sacrifice, but thanks for the thought.  Chocolate was only enjoyed in special vessels.  The Olmecs only drank it in round jars called tecomates.  The Mayans used tall cylindrical beakers as did the Aztecs.  Despite the difference in the shape, the meaning was the same- to mark out the higher status of those able to enjoy such a rich treat.  Although chocolate was mainly for the upper classes, some historians believe the lower classes got a version of it- a chocolate and maize mixture that had a porridge like consistency.  The drink was the most prized version and reserved for the nobility.  Supposedly the 15th century Aztec emperor Montezuma drank three gallons of the drink a day.  European Bernadino de Sahagún describes how the drink was prepared,

“The seller of fine chocolate [is] one who grinds, who provides people with drink, with repasts. She grinds cacao [beans]; she crushes, breaks, pulverizes them. She chooses, selects, separates them. She drenches, soaks, steeps them. She adds water sparingly, conservatively; aerates it, filters it, strains it, pours it back and forth, aerates it; she makes it form a head, makes it foam; she removes the head, makes it form a head, makes it foam…She sells good, superior, potable [chocolate]: the privilege, the drink of nobles, of rulers – finely ground, soft, foamy, reddish, bitter; [with] chile water, with flowers, with uei nacaztli, with teonacaztli, with vanilla, with mecaxochitl, with wild bee honey, with powdered aromatic flowers. [Inferior chocolate has] maize flour and water; lime water; [it is] pale; the [froth] bubbles burst.”

Vase for pouring chocolate, earthenware, Belize, Late Classic Maya, Altun-Ha style. (De Young Museum of Fine Arts, San Francisco) Photo Credit- Mary Harsch (photographed at the de Young Museum of Fine Arts)
published on 26 June 2014

When the Europeans arrived in Mesoamerica in the 16th century, they were not impressed by chocolate.  Legend has it chocolate was offered to Hernando Cortes at a banquet by the Aztec king Montezuma because he thought Cortes was a returning deity.  However, the Europeans turned up their noses and described it as a “bitter drink for pigs”.  Then someone got the bright idea of mixing it with cane sugar and cinnamon.  The newly sweetened drink was a hit and it took Spain by storm.  As before, chocolate was a symbol of wealth and decadence and was only for the taste buds of the nobility.  It remained a secret in Spain until King Philip III’s daughter, Anne of Austria,  married French King Louis XIII in 1615.  She brought with her from the Spanish court a love of chocolate and introduced the French court to the delicacy.  It spread through Europe from there.  By the mid 17th century, chocolate was the most fashionable drink in Europe and was believed to have medicinal and nutritious properties.  It is rumored that great lover Casanova used it copiously as an aphrodisiac.  To feed their appetite for chocolate, European powers fought for land in the colonies to plant sugar and cacao plantations.  Everyone was making money hand over fist.  Everyone except the native Mesoamericans and the African slaves brought in to work the plantations, but that is another post.

Chocolate did not find its way to the masses until the 19th century and the invention of the steam engine.  In 1828, a Dutch chemist named Coenraad Johannes van Houten invented the cocoa press.  This press squeezed the fatty cocoa butter from the roasted beans leaving behind a dry cake which could be pulverized into a fine powder.  This powder was called “Dutch cocoa” and could be mixed with liquids and other ingredients and poured into molds.  This invention both dropped the price making chocolate affordable and also changed the nature of consumption allowing chocolate to become a confection not just a drink.  Joseph Fry took this a step further in 1847 when he added the melted cacao butter back into Dutch cocoa to make a moldable chocolate paste.

By the end of the 19th century, several of the names of chocolate makers we recognize were in play- Cadbury, Nestle, Mars and Hershey.  The average American consumes twelve pounds of chocolate each year.  However, lately, there has been another chocolate trend focusing less on mass production and more on handmade chocolates.  There has also been an emphasis on sustainable cacao farms, which use more earth friendly farming and harvesting techniques.  Even major corporations are cashing in on the trend as Hershey’s has expanded their artisanal chocolate lines.