A Brief History of Chocolate
We need to go back 4,000 years ago to the jungles of Mexico and Central America to discover the history of chocolate, there we find the humble “Theobroma Cacao” or the chocolate tree to you and me.
As a wild species, Theobroma Cacao originates from the rainforest of the Amazon basin and the foothills of the Andes. In nature, it grows as an “understorey” species, meaning it grows shaded by the rainforest canopy above it.
Much of the world’s cocoa crop is grown in the shade of taller trees in mixed plantings, but there has been an increase in clearing rainforest to plant hardier variants of Theobroma Cacao that can take full sunlight.
Unlike many plantation crops, like rubber and oil palm, cocoa can be grown with a diverse mixture of other plants. And for millennia, products made from cocoa have been considered an exclusive item.
What’s in a name?
The scientific name of the cocoa tree, Theobroma Cacao, comes from the Greek words theo (god) and broma (drink) – (the Gods drink cocoa?). The Incas thought it was their gods’ drink of choice. And the word “chocolate” itself can be traced back to the Aztec word “xocoatl,” referring to a bitter drink brewed from cacao beans.
“The history of chocolate begins with a plant whose scientific name – Theobroma cacao – means “food of the gods.”
Cocoa bean currency
The cocoa bean has been a prized possession over the centuries and in pre-modern Latin America, beans were valuable enough to use as currency. One bean could be traded for a tamale, while 100 beans could purchase a good turkey hen, according to a 16th-century Aztec document. And more recent times during the America Revolutionary War, chocolate was so valued that it was included in soldiers’ rations and used as wages.
Chocolate as we know it
For you and me when we think of chocolate we think bars, easter eggs or bonbons. When in fact for about 90 percent of chocolate’s history, it was simply a beverage, with no sugar (say what?). Sweetened chocolate didn’t appear until Europeans discovered the Americas and sampled the native cuisine.
When the first Spanish explorers landed onshore in South America, chocolate didn’t suit their tastebuds – described as “a bitter drink for pigs” but once mixed with honey or cane sugar, it quickly became popular. Spanish Conquistador Don Hernán Cortés, brought cocoa beans back to Spain in 1528.
Photograph Public Domain
By the 17th century, chocolate drinks were wildly fashionable and a symbol for the wealthy in Europe, considered to have medicinal and even aphrodisiac qualities. It only became accessible to the wider population with the introduction of the steam engine and mass production.
We have to wait until 1828 and for a Dutch chemist named Coenraad Johannes van Houten to make the next discovery. He found out if you removed half the fat(cocoa butter) from the bean, crushing remaining and adding salts (to reduce that bitter twang) it left behind cocoa powder – paving the way for the chocolate bar as we know it!
This process became known as “Dutch processing” with the chocolate produced called cocoa powder or “Dutch cocoa”. This is why Dutch chocolate holds so much weight when mentioned marketing.
The Birth of Modern Chocolate
After the discovery of cocoa powder, it wasn’t long before the first modern chocolate bar appeared. In 1847, Joseph Fry discovered by adding a percentage of melted cacao butter back into “Dutch cocoa” he could make a moldable chocolate paste.
By now our chocolate history comes into more recent times. In 1868, a little company you may know called Cadbury were making and marketing little boxes of chocolate in England. Followed a few years later by Nestle who entered the market with milk chocolate – and the rest, as they say, is history!
Some of the tasty benefits of white chocolate are that it has less caffeine than darker chocolate and a lower melting point (thanks to the cocoa butter). So it’s high enough to keep white chocolate solid at room temperature, yet low enough to allow the white chocolate to melt in your mouth… giving you that delicious melting moment.
The terminology around chocolate can be a little confusing, the term “cacao” refers to the plant or its beans before processing, “chocolate” is anything made from the beans, with “cocoa” chocolate its powdered form, or it can also be a British form of “cacao.
So there you have it a brief history of chocolate, we all have a special place in our heart for a chocolatey treat so much so the global chocolate market is forecasted to reach USD 139.94 billion by 2024 between 2019 – 2024 – that’s a lot of chocolate!
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