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A Brief History of Chocolate

Confectionery history has a record of at least 4,000 years, when Egyptians displayed their pleasures on papyrus. Sweetmeats were being sold in the marketplace in 1566 BC.

Yet chocolate didn't appear on the scene until the ancient Aztec and Mayan cultures discovered the value of the cacao plant. It is reputed to have originated in the Amazon or Orinoco basin.

In 600 A.D. the Mayans migrated into the northern regions of South America, establishing the earliest known cocoa plantations in the Yucatan. It has been argued that the Mayans had been familiar with cocoa several centuries prior to this date. They considered it a valuable commodity, used both as a means of payment and as units of calculation.

Mayans and Aztecs took beans from the "cacao" tree and made a drink they called "xocoatl." Aztec Indian legend held that cacao seeds had been brought from Paradise and that wisdom and power came from eating the fruit of the cacao tree.

Ancient chronicles report that the Aztecs, believing that the god Quetzalcoatl traveled to earth on a beam of the Morning Star with a cacao tree from Paradise, took his offering to the people. They learned from Quetzalcoatl how to roast and grind the cacao seeds, making a nourishing paste that could be dissolved in water. They added spices and called this drink "chocolatl," or bitter-water, and believed it brought universal wisdom and knowledge.

The word "chocolate" is said to derive from the Mayan "xocoatl"; cocoa from the Aztec "cacahuatl." The Mexican Indian word "chocolate" comes from a combination of the terms choco ("foam") and atl ("water"); early chocolate was only consumed in beverage form. As part of a ritual in twelfth-century Mesoamerican marriages, a mug of the frothy chocolate was shared.

Arthur W. Knapp, author of The Cocoa and Chocolate Industry (Pitman, 1923) points out that if we believe Mexican mythology, "chocolate was consumed by the Gods in Paradise, and the seed of cocoa was conveyed to man as a special blessing by the God of the Air."

Ancient Mexicans believed that Tonacatecutli, the goddess of food, and Calchiuhtlucue, the goddess of water, were guardian goddesses of cocoa. Each year they performed human sacrifices for the goddesses, giving the victim cocoa at his last meal.

Swedish naturalist Carolus Linnaeus (1707-1778) was dissatisfied with the word "cocoa," so renamed it "theobroma," Greek for "food of the gods."

Christopher Columbus is said to have brought back cacao beans to King Ferdinand from his fourth visit to the New World, but they were overlooked in favor of the many other treasures he had found.

Chocolate was first noted in 1519 when Spanish explorer Hernando Cortez visited the court of Emperor Montezuma of Mexico. American historian William Hickling's History of the Conquest of Mexico (1838) reports that Montezuma "took no other beverage than the chocolatl, a potation of chocolate, flavored with vanilla and spices, and so prepared as to be reduced to a froth of the consistency of honey, which gradually dissolved in the mouth and was taken cold." The fact that Montezuma consumed his "chocolatl" in goblets before entering his harem led to the belief that it was an aphrodisiac.

In 1528 Cortez brought chocolate back from Mexico to the royal court of King Charles V. Monks, hidden away in Spanish monasteries, processed the cocoa beans and kept chocolate a secret for nearly a century. It made a profitable industry for Spain, which planted cocoa trees in its overseas colonies.

It took an Italian traveler, Antonio Carletti, to discover the chocolate treasure in 1606 and take it into other parts of Europe.

“With the decline of Spain as a power, the secret of cacao leaked out at last, and the Spanish Crown's monopoly of the chocolate trade came to an end. In a few years the knowledge of it had spread through France, Italy, Germany, and England." (The Nestle Company, Inc., White Plains, New York, The History of Chocolate and Cocoa, p. 2.)

When the Spanish Princess Maria Theresa was betrothed to Louis XIV of France in 1615, she gave her fiancé an engagement gift of chocolate, packaged in an elegantly ornate chest. Their marriage was symbolic of the marriage of chocolate in the Spanish-Franco culture.

The first chocolate house was reputedly opened in London in 1657 by a Frenchman. Costing 10 to 15 shillings per pound, chocolate was considered a beverage for the elite class. Sixteenth-century Spanish historian Oviedo noted: "None but the rich and noble could afford to drink chocolatl as it was literally drinking money. Cocoa passed currency as money among all nations; thus a rabbit in Nicaragua sold for 10 cocoa nibs, and 100 of these seeds could buy a tolerably good slave."

Chocolate also appears to have been used as a medicinal remedy by leading physicians of the day. Christopher Ludwig Hoffmann's treatise Potus Chocolate recommends chocolate for many diseases, citing it as a cure for Cardinal Richelieu's ills.

Chocolate traveled to the Low Countries with the Duke of Alba. By 1730, it had dropped in price from $3 per lb to being within the financial reach of those other than the very wealthy. The invention of the cocoa press in 1828 helped further to cut prices and improve the quality of chocolate by squeezing out some of the cocoa butter and giving the beverage a smoother consistency.

With the Industrial Revolution came the mass production of chocolate, spreading its popularity among the citizenry.

Discussing the introduction of coffee, tea, and cocoa into Europe, Isaac Disraeli (1791-1834) wrote in his six-volume Curiosities of Literature: "Chocolate the Spaniards brought from Mexico, where it was denominated chocolatl. It was a coarse mixture of ground cacao and Indian corn with roucou; but the Spaniards, liking its nourishment, improved it into a richer compound with sugar, vanilla and other aromatics. We had Chocolate houses in London long after coffee houses; they seemed to have associated something more elegant and refined in their new form when the other had become common."

Prince Albert's Exposition in 1851 in London was the first time the United States was introduced to bonbons, chocolate creams, hand candies (called "boiled sweets"), and caramels.

An 1891 publication on The Chocolate-Plant by Walter Baker a Co. records that, "At the discovery of America, the natives of the narrower portion of the continent bordering on the Caribbean Sea were found in possession of two luxuries which have been every where recognized as worthy of extensive cultivation; namely, tobacco and chocolate."

Chocolate was introduced to the United States in 1765 when John Hanan brought cocoa beans from the West Indies into Dorchester, Massachusetts, to refine them with the help of Dr. James Baker. The first chocolate factory in the country was established there.

Yet, chocolate wasn't really accepted by the American colonists until fishermen from Gloucester, Massachusetts, accepted cocoa beans as payment for cargo in tropical America.

Where chocolate was mostly considered a beverage for centuries, and predominantly for men, it became recognized as an appropriate drink for children in the seventeenth century. It had many different additions: milk, wine, beer, sweeteners, and spices. Drinking chocolate was considered a very fashionable social event.

Eating chocolate was introduced in 1674 in the form of rolls and cakes, served in the various chocolate emporiums.

In 1747 Frederick the Great issued an edict forbidding the hawking of chocolate.

By 1795, Dr. Joseph Fry of Bristol, England, employed a steam engine for grinding cocoa beans, an invention that led to the manufacture of chocolate on a large scale.

Around 1847, Fry & Sons sold a "Chocolat Delicieux a Manger," which is thought to be the first chocolate bar for eating.

Nestle (The History of Chocolate and Cocoa, p. 3) declares that from 1800 to the present day, these four factors contributed to chocolate's "coming of age" as a worldwide food product:

1. The introduction of cocoa powder in 1828;
2. The reduction of excise duties;
3. Improvements in transportation facilities, from plantation to factory
4. The invention of eating chocolate, and improvements in manufacturing methods.

By the year 1810, Venezuela was producing half the world's requirements for cocoa, and one-third of all the cocoa produced in the world was being consumed by the Spaniards.

The invention of the cocoa press in 1828 by C.J. Van Houten, a Dutch chocolate master, helped reduce the price of chocolate and bring it to the masses. By squeezing out cocoa butter from the beans, Van Houten's "dutching" was an alkalizing process.

In his 1923 volume The Cocoa and Chocolate Industry, Arthur W. Knapp attributes the rise in popularity of cocoa to these innovations:

1. The introduction by Van Houten of cocoa powder as we now know it.
2. The reduction of the duty to a low figure which remained constant for a number of years.
3. The great improvements that have taken place in the methods of transport.
4. Improvements in the manufacture of eating chocolate.

Daniel Peter of Vevey, Switzerland, experimented for eight years before finally inventing a means of making milk chocolate for eating in 1876. He brought his creation to a Swiss firm that today is the world's largest producer of chocolate: Nestle.

In 1879 Rodolphe Lindt of Berne, Switzerland, produced chocolate that melted on the tongue. He invented "conching," a means of heating and rolling chocolate to refine it. After chocolate had been conched for 72 hours and had more cocoa butter added to it, the original "fondant" was created.

Cadbury Brothers displayed eating chocolate in 1849 at an exhibition in Bingley Hall at Birmingham, England.

Swiss confiseur Jules Sechaud of Montreux introduced a process for manufacturing filled chocolates in 1913.

The New York Cocoa Exchange, located at the World Trade Center, was begun October 1, 1925, so that buyers and sellers could get together for transactions.

Brazil and the Ivory Coast are leaders in the cocoa bean belt, accounting for nearly half of the world's cocoa.

While the United States leads the world in cocoa bean importation and chocolate production, Switzerland continues as the leader in per capita chocolate consumption.

In 1980 a story of chocolate espionage hit the world press when an apprentice of the Swiss company of Suchard-Tobler unsuccessfully attempted to sell secret chocolate recipes to Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, and other countries.

By the 1990s, chocolate had proven its popularity as a product, and its success as a big business. Annual world consumption of cocoa beans averages approximately 600,000 tons, and per capita chocolate consumption is greatly on the rise. Chocolate manufacturing in the United States is a multibillion-dollar industry. According to Norman Kolpas (1978, p. 106),

"We have seen how chocolate progressed from a primitive drink and food of ancient Latin American tribes -- a part of their religious, commerce and social life -- to a drink favored by the elite of European society and gradually improved until it was in comparably drinkable and, later, superbly edible. We have also followed its complex transformation from the closely packed seeds of the fruit of an exotic tree to a wide variety of carefully manufactured cocoa and chocolate products. Beyond the historical, agricultural and commercial, and culinary sides to chocolate, others: affect on our health and beauty, and inspiration to literature and the arts."