There are few foodstuffs with such a rich and intriguing history as cocoa and chocolate. Many people have a love affair with chocolate yet few of us know the unique origins of this popular treat. We tend to think of chocolate as a sweet candy created during modern times. But actually, chocolate dates back to the ancient peoples of Mesoamerica who drank chocolate as a bitter beverage.
The story of chocolate spans more than 3,000 years and began in the tropical rainforests of Central and South America where cacao trees, the seeds of which are made into chocolate, first grew. These tropical evergreen trees are native to Central and South America.
The botanical name of the tree that gives us chocolate is Theobroma Cacao, which literally means ‘food of the gods.’ The tree’s modern generic Latin name (Theobrama Cacao) actually derives from the Mayan word ‘cacao’ meaning ‘god food.’
Cacao trees produce large leathery fruits containing large seeds enveloped by a sweet-sour, cream-colored pulp. Fruits sometimes called pods can get to be the size of footballs and may contain as many as 50 seeds. Chocolate is made from the large seeds. It takes around 400 seeds to make 1 pound of chocolate.
The earliest known evidence for cacao use dates from around 1100 BC. Researchers identified residue of a chemical compound that comes exclusively from the cacao plant – the source of chocolate – in pottery vessels at an archaeological site in Puerto Escondido, Honduras.
The earliest cacao beverages consumed at Puerto Escondido were likely produced by fermenting the sweet pulp surrounding the seeds – and it was this beer-like drink that started the chocolate craze
The chocolate enjoyed by later Mesoamerican civilizations like the Maya and Aztecs was made from ground cacao seeds with added seasonings, producing a spicy, frothy drink.
Both the Maya and Aztec people prized cacao, using the beans not only for culinary purposes but also for trade and as currency. Pre-Conquest chocolate was almost always a drink, which had many forms and flavourings. The Maya brewed a spicy, bitter sweet drink by roasting and pounding the seeds of the cacao tree (cocoa beans) with maize and capsicum (chilli) peppers and letting the mixture ferment. The Aztecs, like the Mayans, also enjoyed cacao as a beverage fermented from the raw beans. The Aztecs called this drink Xocolatl, the Spanish conquistadors found this almost impossible to pronounce and so corrupted it to the easier ‘chocolat’, the English further changed this to chocolate.
Chocolate was of major ceremonial importance to the Maya and the Aztecs. It was served at lavish banquets, buried with the dead, and used to anoint newborn babies. The Aztec’s also regarded chocolate as an aphrodisiac and their Emperor, Montezuma reputedly drank it fifty times a day from a golden goblet.
In fact, the Aztec’s prized Xocolatl so highly, that when Montezuma was defeated by Cortez in 1519 and the victorious ‘conquistadors’ searched his palace for the Aztec treasury expecting to find gold and silver, all they found were huge quantities of cocoa beans!
The Spanish brought cacao back to Europe in the 16th century. Eventually the drink’s popularity spread throughout the continent. Since then, new technologies and innovations have changed the texture and taste of chocolate, but it still remains one of the world’s favourite flavours.
Today, per capita consumption of chocolate in the United States and western Europe has doubled since 1945. The Swiss and the British eat the most chocolate. The Norwegians and Austrians drink the most chocolate.
Should any chocolate lovers need justification to indulge in their sweet addiction, the good news is that chocolate provides minerals such as potassium and calcium. Research also indicates that cacao consumption produces a marijuana-like effect, with a harmless euphoria. Chocoholics everywhere will attest to at least a mildly ecstatic psychological state from chocolate.
Remember to look for fair-trade designations when purchasing chocolate as cacao plantations are often criticised for poor working conditions and the destruction of rainforests.