The Origins of Chocolate

Today, people consume chocolate in its many forms all around the world but how did this fan favourite come to be so popular? Long before the advent of the chocolates we are familiar with today the seeds of the cacao tree were being harvested for other uses. Drinks made from fermented cacao seeds are believed to date back to 1900 BC in Mesoamerica. The Aztecs believed the seeds were a gift from the gods and could deliver wisdom. Much prized they were used as a form of currency. At one-time conquistadors from Spain recorded that 100 beans would be sufficient to buy a canoe full of drinking water. Chocolate was at first only served as a drink which in this pure form was somewhat frothy in appearance and bitter in taste. The liquid would be added to spices or perhaps corn purée and was believed to be an aphrodisiac. Such drinks as these are today referred to us Chilate and may be seen among the locals of southern Mexico. Unlike the Mayan people before them who also drank the chocolate drink of fermented seeds, the Aztecs drank the chocolate cold. Later Pueblo people who lived in what is now the southwestern region of the US began importing cacao from these cultures in Central America or southern Mexico, between 900 and1400 and similarly used it to make a drink commonly enjoyed by all the people. Up until the 16th century the use of chocolate as a beverage was only common in central and southern America. Not until Columbus returned from his fourth trip to the Americas in 1502 did the bean arrive in Europe, specifically Spain, but without much enthusiasm. Later the Spaniard Cortez observed its use in the court of Montezuma, probably around 1519 and after the Spanish conquered the Aztecs chocolate was imported and fast became a favourite of the court. It remained a beverage but was sweetened with honey or sugar to suit the European palette and its original spiced flavour began to fade in use. After about 100 years chocolate had become quite popular within all Europe. With the rise in popularity came innovation in extraction and processing techniques. The Industrial revolution resulted in some new methods of production as well as methods to reduce bitterness of the product. A Dutch chemist by the name of Houten worked in this field in the 1800s and went on to create a press that could remove half the cacao butter or fat from the liquor which made for a more consistent quality and a cheaper product. Thus, it was that around 1828 Dutch chocolate, as it became known, was synonymous with the modern age of chocolate making which was then transformed again when Joseph Fry added back the melted butter and was able to mould it into its familiar solid form.

Milk had already been introduced to the chocolate beverage since the 17th century but it wasn’t until Daniel Peter added powdered milk, produced by Henri Nestle, that milk chocolate was created in 1875. Rudolph Lindt further improved the taste and texture of the chocolate in 1879 when he invented the conching machine, a device that agitates and mixes the cocoa butter within the chocolate and produces a smoother texture and a superior flavour. From this point onward, the humble cacao bean became the source of numerous variations of the chocolate, be it as back then in the 1800s a solid bar or later in its various forms of the boxed chocolate. Whatever its shape or size we are pretty much all happy that those humble beginnings resulted in such a delicious treat!