Some Tasty Chocolate History

The story begins some two millennia ago in the tropical rainforests of the Americas. Although the cacao tree had been around for some time, the natives had never used the beans inside the pods for food. Upon discovering that the seeds could be processed and used as a drink, it quickly caught on with these primitive people. The first people known to make chocolate from the cacao beans were the ancient cultures of Central America and Mexico. They would grind the beans and mix them with different seasonings and spices and then whip the beverage by hand until it was both frothy and spicy.

The Olmec Indians are believed to be the first culture to grow the beans as a domestic crop, between 1500 and 400 B.C. From 250 to 900 C.E., the consumption of the beans was restricted to the elite class of the Mayan culture. Throughout these years, the drink was consumed unsweetened. Apparently the Mayan people valued the beans so highly that they planted them in their personal gardens so that they had easy access to them.

Around 600 A.D., the Mayans migrated into the northern regions of South America and began the earliest recorded plantations of cacao trees in the Yucatan. They used the beverage that they made in betrothal and marriage ceremonies.

Once the Aztec culture was able to abscond with some of the beans and learn how to make the beverage from them, they used them for medicinal purposes and in ceremonies such as weddings and religious rites. They believed that the beans were a gift from their gods. They are also the first known culture to tax the beans. Their name for the beverage that they made was "xocalatl", translated to warm or bitter drink. The beans also began, at that time, to be used as currency by the Mesoamerican cultures. They were not used to make chocolate until they were too worn to be used as currency.

The first European to learn of chocolate was Christopher Columbus. He encountered a huge Mayan trading canoe piled high with the valuable beans. When the Spaniards invaded the Yucatan in 1517 and Mexico in 1519, they quickly caught on to the monetary value of the precious beans. They were not fond, however, of the warm, bitter and unsweetened drink which they received from the local people. It took some time, but they learned to adapt their taste buds to the drink and began to enjoy it.

The most popular story of the introduction of chocolate to Europe is that which credits Dominican friars with taking a delegation of Mayan nobles to the court of Prince Philip of Spain. As one of the many gifts which the nobles presented to the Prince, they gave him several jars of already processed cocoa which was ready to drink. The Spaniards did not, however, share this much loved beverage with the rest of Europe for nearly a century!

Sometime during the 16th century, the Spanish people began adding flavoring like vanilla and sugar cane to the chocolate drinks. Thus, sweetened chocolate was invented. And recorded history shows that the popularity of the beverage grew to the point that regular shipments began from Veracruz, Mexico to Seville, Spain in 1582.

The records are not completely clear on how chocolate was introduced to the rest of Europe. It's thought that quite possibly it was distributed through monasteries and convents which were linked with Latin America. Jesuit Society members were major consumers of the drink and had become cocoa traders as well. A French Cardinal popularized the beverage in France and when Louis XIV married Maria Theresa of Spain in 1615 she, chocolate lover that she was, began a custom that spread like wildfire among the French aristocracy.

The English were introduced to the cacao bean through British pirates who targeted Spanish ships in the last half of the 1500s. They saw no use for the odd looking cargo and even burned several shipments before someone found out what the beans were good for making. It took about a hundred years for the chocolate to start making its mark in British history. Once it did though, it was not just reserved for the aristocracy. Anyone in England who could afford it was able to indulge. While it was more expensive than coffee, it was less costly that tea. "Chocolate houses" began to sprout up, with the first one being opened by a Frenchman in 1657. At that time, chocolate was 10 to 15 shillings per pound. So it was rather costly.

During the 16th and 17th centuries, the demand for chocolate grew so large that the cacao plantations had enslaved Mesoamericans to plant, grow, harvest and process the cocoa beans. By the end of the 17th century, only ten percent of the Native Indian population survived. It was then that slaves were transported from Africa to Ecuador, Venezuela, Paraguay and Brazil. For over two centuries, enslaved people and wage laborers were used to meet the demand for the all-enticing cocoa.

Around 1730, the price of cocoa has dropped to around $3 per pound. This made it more affordable to others besides the very wealthy. In 1732, a French inventor developed a table mill for grinding the chocolate. This simplified the process and made it possible to churn out larger quantities at lower cost. So production naturally grew.

In 1765, Irish chocolate maker John Hanan imported cocoa beans from the West Indies to Massachusetts in the American colonies. He teamed up with Dr. James Baker. They built the first chocolate mill in the Colonies and by 1780, that mill was producing the famous Baker's chocolate which is still widely used today.

Another revolution in production occurred in 1795 when Dr. Joseph Fry of Bristol, England used a steam engine to power the grinding wheel used to make chocolate. This catapulted the manufacturing process forward tremendously.

The man who is considered the pioneer of Swiss chocolate making, Francois Callier, opened the first Swiss chocolate factory in 1819. And in 1828, a Dutchman named Conrad Van Houton invented the cocoa press. His invention helped more with cutting the price of chocolate and by improving the quality of it by squeezing out cocoa butter thus making the consistency of the beverage smoother. Mr. Van Houton patented his invention in Amsterdam and his process became known as "Dutching".

In 1847, another innovation was made by Joseph Fry and Son when they discovered a way to add some of the cocoa butter back to the Dutch chocolate, add sugar and make a paste which could be molded into a bar and...Voila! the modern chocolate bar was born. Dr. Fry and his son teamed up with the Cadbury Brothers to display chocolates for eating at an exhibition in Birmingham, England in 1849. In 1851 Americans got their first taste of bonbons, chocolate creams, caramels and "boiled sweets" (hard candies) at Prince Albert's Exposition in London.

In 1861 Richard Cadbury created the very first known heart shaped box for Valentine's Day and seven years later in 1868, John Cadbury mass produced and marketed the first boxes of chocolate candy. In 1876 Daniel Peter, of Switzerland, introduced milk chocolate for drinking - a project that he worked on for eight years before he perfected it. In 1879 he paired up with Henri NestlÃ(c), formed the NestlÃ(c) Company and they gave us a chocolate mix to which all one had to add was water and sugar.

Also in 1879, Rodolphe Lindt of Bern, Switzerland invented a new machine which heated and rolled the chocolate to refine it. The process was called "conching". After the chocolate was "conched" for seventy-two hours and had cocoa butter added to it the product was much smoother and creamier and could be formed into more tasty treats. Lindt Chocolates are still widely known and acclaimed around the world today.

Here's another little tidbit of chocolate history to chew on...the chocolatier accredited with bringing mass production to the chocolate making industry is Milton Hershey of Pennsylvania, United States. Mr. Hershey was nicknamed the "Henry Ford of Chocolate Makers".

Although slavery was abolished in 1888, the use of slave labor continued into the early 1900s. In 1910, William Cadbury became a leader in boycotting those plantations who misused and abused their workers. He invited other English and American chocolate manufacturers to join him in his campaign. That same year, the U.S. Congress enacted a formal ban on any cocoa which proved to be produced using slave labor. These efforts did cause conditions on the plantations to improve. The same year that the chocolatiers came together in their formal protest against the cruelty found on cocoa plantations, a Canadian by the name of Arthur Garong introduced the first nickel chocolate bar.

In 1913, Swiss chocolatier Jules Sechaud gave the chocolate industry a machine process for filling hollowed chocolate shells. Then in 1926 Joseph Draps, a Belgian chocolate manufacturer, opened the doors of Godiva Chocolates.

Today, most cacao is grown and harvested by hand. But gone are the days when cruel plantation owners used slave labor to satisfy the world's need for chocolate. Today's cacao is produced by independent growers or cooperative groups around the world.

While there are a few companies which produce handmade chocolates, most of the production is done by machine. It is more cost effective and allows the companies to sell their product for less than those who handcraft their products.

Even today there are still cultures who believe that chocolate is for use as a form of currency and for medicinal and religious purposes. In fact the cacao bean has a chemical called theobromine which is used to treat high blood pressure, because it enlarges blood vessels. So it is used even in modern medicine. And cocoa butter is used in some beauty aids such as lotions and cream to treat skin. It's well known for its rich formula which moistens and softens. It's also good for treating sunburn. Plus, cocoa butter is used to coat pills so they go down one's throat more easily.

There you have it...a little history, a few fun facts...are you craving chocolate? I am! So we'll wrap this up here. Go grab some chocolate, relax and appreciate the history which has brought us this delightful treat.

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About The Author, Michael Russell
Michael Russell
Your Independent guide to Chocolates