The cacao tree and its fruit
The history of chocolate
How is chocolate made?
Random facts about chocolate
(courtesy of ChocoMuseo)
Discovering the tasty secret of cacao
Most studies agree that the Maya were the first people to discover the secret of cacao. They grew it in their own backyards, and harvested, fermented, roasted, and ground the seeds into a paste, from which they prepared a frothy, bitter drink.
250 AD - 900 AD Mesoamerica
The Maya covered the Central American territories currently known as southern Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Honduras and a part of El Salvador. They traded with each other over this immense area.
The Maya grew cacao in their backyards and drank it spicy
Cacao trees were naturally found in the tropical rainforests of the Maya homeland. No one can tell how they discovered the tasty secret of cacao, but the Maya valued chocolate so much that they gathered cacao seeds from the rainforest to grow cacao in their own household gardens. These scenes are often shown in ancient glyphs, the Maya written language.
The classic Maya Maize God depicted as a cacao tree
The Maya Merchant God ("Ek Chuah") near a cacao tree (Cacaxtla, Mexico, 900 AD)
The Maya invented the basics of cacao paste preparation, a 5-step process that is still in use nowadays:
Of course, they had their own techniques, such as for the grinding: they used a "mano" (a cylindrical stone) to grind the nibs against a "metate" (a large rectangular stone mortar).
A Maya God grinding cacao
Left: Grinding cacao with a mano on a metate / Right: a mano and a metate
The Maya drank chocolate as a frothy, hot and bitter drink, according to the following 2,000 year old recipe:
1. Mix the cacao paste with water
2 Add spices such as chilli peppers and cornmeal
3. Pour the concoction back and forth from cup to pot until it develops thick foam on top
4. Sweeten with honey or flower nectar
Cacao was part of daily Maya life
In Maya society, everyone, regardless of status, could enjoy a chocolate drink. The wealthy drank their chocolate from elaborate vessels decorated by specially trained artists. Remarkably, it was the favourite drink of Maya kings and priests. Cacao pods were also used by priests to offer blood, one of the most sacred offerings. Maya couples also drank chocolate as part of their betrothal and marriage ceremonies.
Palace scene: a ruler with a pot of foaming chocolate
Pouring chocolate from one vessel to another (Maya vase, 750 AD)
The Aztecs: the value of cacao
The Aztecs discovered cacao when they gained control over Mayas in southern areas of Mesoamerica. Soon cacao became of great economic importance, as it became a form of currency throughout the Aztecs' vast trade empire. The chocolate drink turned into an upper class privilege.
1200 - 1521 Mesoamerica
The Aztecs originated in central Mexico and expanded their territory all the way down to the Maya lands in Honduras.
Aztecs carried cacao on their backs for 900 miles
The Aztecs could not grow cacao in their territory, dry highlands of central Mexico. Instead, they traded with the Maya, or, taking advantage of their ruling over Maya lands, they required Inhabitants of cacao-growing areas to pay tribute (taxes) in cacao seeds. The Aztec traders carried their precious cargo for hundreds of miles, up to the capital, Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City), on foot, in woven backpacks.
Blood-red chocolate for rituals...
Because cacao seeds had to travel over such long distances to reach the Aztecs, they bought fermented and dried, making the valuable cargo weight less. From there, the Aztecs used the process and tools as the Maya to prepare the cacao paste. They flavoured the traditional Maya beverage with vanilla beans and/or black peppers. For ritual and religious purposes, the Aztecs added annatto to turn the chocolate into a blood-red liquid.
Aztec woman pouring chocolate from one cup to another to create froth
Chocolate was drunk exclusively by the Aztec elite
Cacao a as a currency
As cacao seeds were worth a fortune, drinking chocolate was a luxury few Aztecs could afford: among them, rulers, priests, decorated warriors, and honoured merchants.
According to an Aztec legend, it is the god Quetzalcoatl who brought heavenly cacao to Earth. For this blasphemous act of giving this sacred drink to humans, he was cast out of paradise. As a result, chocolate was thought as being the food of the gods, and priests often made offerings of cacao seeds to Quetzalcoatl and other deities.
Because of their value, cacao seeds were used as currency in Aztec society. Below you can see how much basic things cost in the city of Tlaxcala, 1545 AD.
The Spaniards: The conquest of cacao
Although probable that in 1508 Christopher Columbus was the first European to see cacao seeds off the coast of present day Honduras, it wasn't until Hernán Cortés conquered Tenochtitlan (today Mexico City) in 1521 that the Spanish began to learn about the delicious flavour of chocolate. Contact between Spaniards and Aztecs opened a gateway for the exchange of ideas and technology - and a new European market for foods, including cacao.
1521 - 1600 Mesoamerica - Spain
Spain's monopoly on cacao coming from Aztec and Maya lands in Central America lasted the entire 16th century.
Organized pillage of the Americas
The Spaniards liked it hot
Controversial in the Catholic Church
The origin of the word "chocolate"
Treatise by León Pinelo, discussing whether chocolate breaks the ecclesiastical fast
Europe: The expansion of the pleasure of chocolate
Drinking chocolate was Spain's secret for almost 100 years before other European countries caught the chocolate craze.
The beverage was first introduced to Italy in 1606 before it spread among Europe's nobles. New techniques and recipes were developed and chocolate became the latest and greatest fad to hit the royal courts of Europe - a trend that lasted until the Industrial Revolution made chocolate available to a much broader public.
1600 - 1750 Europe
Chocolate spread among European nobility mainly in Italy, France and England
Inventing chocolate milk
Like the Spanish, most other Europeans countries had their plantation workers harvest, ferment and dry the seeds for overseas shipping. Once they arrived in European ports, these seeds would have to be ground by hand, but to produce larger amounts of chocolate more quickly, people began grinding their cacao using wind-driven or horse-drawn mills. For most Europeans, chocolate was drunk hot and sweetened with sugar, another expensive and exotic import from faraway plantations. And in the late 1600s, Sir Hans Sloane, president of the Royal College of Physicians, introduced another culinary custom: mixing the already popular chocolate drink with milk for a lighter, smoother flavour.
Cacao plantations take root in Africa and Asia
To obtain a constant supply of cacao and sugar, many countries established cacao-growing colonies near the equator. For example, the British planted trees in Sri Lanka and Ghana, the Dutch in Java and Sumatra and the French in the West Indies and Ivory Coast. All these countries were shipping cacao back home to keep Europe well stocked with chocolate.
Cacao as well as other contemporaneous New World products (sugar, indigo, tobacco, cotton, etc.), was a labour-intensive crop. After so many Mesoamericans died from European diseases or mistreatment on plantations, colonial landowners bought slaves from Africa. For over two centuries, a combination of millions of wage labourers and slaves were used to create a large workforce to meet European demand.
An aristocratic privilege
Chocolate was first introduced in various European countries as a medicine and then became a trendy beverage for nobles and wealthy. In France, chocolate was a state monopoly and by decree no one but members of the French aristocracy were allowed to drink it. In some European countries, chocolate was consumed in chocolate houses. Those were places for wealthy people to enjoy a hot drink, discuss politics, socialize and gamble. The first English chocolate house, similar to today’s coffee houses, opened in London in 1657, and chocolate houses in Florence and Venice gained notoriety in the early 1700s. Europeans preferred to drink their chocolate from ornate dishes made out of precious materials and crafted by artisans. Like the elaborate ceramic vessels of ancient Maya and Aztec rulers, these dishes were more than serving pieces: they were also symbols of wealth.
Chocolatada ("chocolate party"), Valencia, Spain, early 18th century
Chocolate house in London (18th century)
Europe - USA: Chocolate in the age of reason
From prehispanic times until the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, chocolate was largely a handmade product. Time consuming and expensive to produce, chocolate was available only to the wealthy as a beverage. But new machinery of the industrial age made it possible to create solid chocolate and mass-produce this candy at a fraction of the original cost. For the first time, most of the general public could afford this tasty treat.
Cacao and sugar, the main ingredients of chocolate, were obtained by Europeans and North Americans from plantations they established in tropical countries around the world from the 17th century onwards. In 1910, William Cadbury (the famous chocolate manufacturer) invited several English and American chocolate companies to join him in refusing to buy cacao from plantations characterized by the harshest working conditions. That same year, a United States congressional hearing resulted in a formal U.S. ban on the importation of any cacao shown to be the product of slave labour.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, new machines and processes radically sped up the chocolate production and enabled to create smoother and creamier chocolate, as well as, for the first time, solid chocolate. The hydraulic press and the steam-driven chocolate mill (respectively Invented by M. Doret and M. Dubuisson) relieved people from the labour-intensive process of grinding cacao. It enabled the inexpensive processing of cacao and the mass production of chocolate. In 1828, the Dutch Casparus van Houten Sr. invented the cacao press, which squeezed out cocoa butter from the cocoa mass. It allowed for the improvement of the chocolate's consistency and also permitted the separate sale of cacao powder.
Van Houten's cocoa press (1828)
Advertising sign for
Henri Nestlé (1814 - 1890)
In 1828 Casparus van Houten Sr. (and not his son Coenraad van Houten, who is usually credited) patented an inexpensive method for pressing the fat from roasted cocoa beans. The centre of the bean, known as the "nib," contains an average of 54 percent cocoa butter, which is a natural fat. Van Houten's machine - a hydraulic press - reduced the cocoa butter content by nearly half. This created a "cake" that could be pulverized into cocoa powder, which was to become the basis of all chocolate products. The introduction of cocoa powder not only made creating chocolate drinks much easier, but also made it possible to combine chocolate with sugar and then remix it with cocoa butter to create a solid, already closely resembling today's eating chocolate. In 1838 the patent expired, enabling others to produce cocoa powder and build on Van Houten's success, experimenting to make new chocolate products. Casparus' son, Coenraad van Houten, pioneered the alkalinisation of cacao, in order to modify its colour, to reduce its bitterness and give it a milder flavour and to enable it to dissolve better in aqueous liquids. In 1847 English chocolate maker J.S. Fry & Sons produced arguably the first chocolate bar. Later developments were in Switzerland, where Daniel Peter and Henri Nestlé used condensed milk to create milk chocolate and Rodolphe Lindt made chocolate more blendable by the process of conching in 1879.
Chocolate is finally available to the masses
For hundreds of years, chocolate had been a pricey luxury limited to the upper classes. But new technologies made chocolate affordable to a much broader segment of society and permitted for culinary experimentation. Chocolate began to appear not only in its candy bar form, but also became much more popular as an ingredient in other confectionery products, such as cakes, pastries and sorbets. While inventions made chocolate easier and cheaper to produce, advertising made it something people craved. Advertisers introduced broad-based marketing campaigns, particularly targeting women and children. Breakfast chocolate became a part of many people's diets. And nibbling on chocolate bars was encouraged as a way to sustain energy, cure lethargy and improve a host of other deceases.
World: Mass consumption
During the early part of the 20th century, new machinery, new lands for cacao-growing, and even the two world wars helped spread chocolate’s popularity. Today, although cacao farming hasn’t changed much, chocolate manufacturing has become a blend of art and science. Thanks to trade and technology, cacao seeds and chocolate are part of a global market economy that includes most countries around the world.
Industrial machine for refining chocolate (J.S. Fry & Sons)
Ad for Fry's Chocolate
US Army field ration of chocolate (First World War)
Prices are dictated by traders on the stock exchange
In the past century, chocolate’s popularity grew so astonishingly that, at times, cacao became scarce. As a result, throughout the world many equatorial countries that had never grown cacao before began to cultivate it. A few manufacturers today still own their own cacao farms, but the colonial plantations once controlled by Europe and America are gone. Most cacao is now produced by independent farmers or cooperative groups in unexpected places like Africa and Indonesia—far away from cacao’s original home in the tropical rainforests of the Americas. Cacao is still grown by hand. While machines have made chocolate faster to produce and cheaper to buy, they haven’t changed the way in which cacao is grown. Farmers still tend, harvest, ferment, dry and pack the seeds by hand. Cacao farmers sell their product to chocolate-processing companies through traders at the "Coffee, Sugar and Cocoa Exchange" (similar to a stock exchange). The actors of this market all buy and sell contracts for cacao before the crops are even harvested.
Chocolate becomes an industry
Converting cacao seeds into chocolate has now evolved into a complex and mechanized process. In assembly-line fashion, varieties of cacao from around the world are blended, roasted, cracked, winnowed, ground, pressed, mixed, conched, refined and tempered into rich and creamy candy bars. Most large-scale manufacturers run their chocolate-making factories like laboratories. They devise special blends of exotic cacao seeds and create unique recipes for chocolate that hold the secret to brand success. Precision instruments track temperature and moisture levels and regulate the timing of automated processes within the factory. Over the years, many creative confectioners developed countless new varieties and flavours of chocolate. A few icons of the early 1900s still survive today, like Hershey, Cadbury and Nestlé.
Nowadays only a few countries resist the addiction...
The armed forces helped spread the love of chocolate worldwide. The trend first began in the late 19th century, when Queen Victoria got her soldiers hooked on chocolate by sending them gifts of this nourishing and delicious candy for Christmas. But the popularity of candy bars skyrocketed after World War I, when chocolate was part of every United States' soldier's rations. Although chocolate is now more affordable, not everybody chooses to consume it. Many Asian cultures have never really developed a taste for this sweet. In fact, the Chinese eat only one bar of chocolate for every 1,000 consumed by the British! And in countries like Ghana and Ivory Coast, people rarely eat chocolate, because it is worth more to them as a trade product than as a food.