A history of chocolate
Cocoa beans found their place in history three thousand years ago. The Mayans, Olmecs and Aztecs learnt to make a drink from these beans that far surpassed other forms of chocolate consumption. The Aztecs believed that the cacao tree was a precious symbol of life and fertility. The base for chocolate is cocoa, which is obtained from the beans of the tropical cacao tree (Theobroma Cacao, from the Greek for ‘food of the gods’). Large cocoa plantations can be found near the equator in western Africa, but the best quality cocoa beans are cultivated in Central and South America. That ancient beverage is very different to the hot chocolate we know today. It was very bitter, foamy, and usually seasoned with exotic spices such as vanilla, pepper or chilli. The first European to discover cocoa beans was Christopher Columbus. However, to Spaniards they tasted like almonds and so they were not very interested in the beans. The modern history of chocolate in Europe begins in the 15th century, when the Spanish conquistador Hernando Cortes returned home with knowledge of how to make a hot, invigorating beverage called ‘xocolatl’, the Mayan word meaning ‘bitter water’. Whilst conquering Mexico, Cortes developed a taste for the frothy chocolate beverage served at the feast held to commemorate his meeting with the Aztec king, Montezuma. Cocoa beans were very precious, so only the nobility was permitted to drink the chocolate beverage. In the original recipe, the beverage was prepared by grinding green cocoa pods, adding corn flour to thicken, and flavouring it with vanilla and chilli. In Europe, chocolate became a very valuable beverage that provided energy and acted as an aphrodisiac. Chocolate found its way to France in the 16th century and became quite popular, but only among the aristocracy. In 1876, Swiss native Daniel Peter got the idea of adding sweetened condensed milk to chocolate, and so was born the first milk chocolate. Chocolate became the most popular sweet four years later, when another Swiss native, Rodolphe Lindt, invented the conche (mixing machine). Chocolate bars as we know them today were created in the early 19th century by the Dutch chemist Coenraad Van Houten, who invented the first press to separate cocoa butter from roasted cocoa beans. Chocolate was a standard military ration for soldiers during World War II, issued to them as a source of energy. Chocolate fever hit in the late 20th century, and it just keeps getting hotter….