A brief history of chocolate
Everyone loves chocolate. From small kids to your antediluvian granny who allows herself on wrapped chocolate per day from the tin she keeps hidden in the secret drawer under the dresser. How did it become embedded so deeply in our culture?
In the US, millions tonnes of chocolate are sold every single day with a value of around $20 billion. From pocket money snacks to bespoke, individually crafted confections which sell for hundreds of dollars per pound from classy chocolatiers.
The best known chocolatiers in the world are from Switzerland, but chocolate actually originated here in America – well, The Americas at least.
If you’ve done any reading about the origins of chocolate, you may have picked up that chocolate originated in the jungles of South America – among the many successive indigenous peoples who used chocolate as medicine, as food, as a ceremonial sacrament, and as an aphrodisiac.
While that has its roots in truth, it is not entirely correct. Chocolate has had a long and storied journey and what we eat today is very different from chocolate as it first appeared in its original form.
Typically, both milk chocolate and dark chocolate are a blend of cocoa butter, cocoa powder and sugar. Milk chocolate also contains milk. Obviously.
The origins of chocolate.
When we talk about ancient chocolate, we’re actually talking about cacao, which has been used in various forms for around 4,000 years in Mesoamerica.
The cocoa bean – also known as cacao – is a seed inside the fruit of the cocoa tree, which is found in the Amazon rainforest. The cocoa beans themselves are formed in a pod, and you’ll be pleased to hear that all parts of cocoa pod. The flesh itself is deliciously melon-like, with a smell reminiscent of lychees. The beans themselves are bitter with a taste similar to the dark chocolate which many of them will eventually become.
But just because you can eat raw cocoa (or cacao beans) does not mean that you can in practice. Sure, if you travel to the jungles of Africa or South and central America, you can have a go at harvesting some yourself, but the overwhelming majority of so-called Raw cacao beans that you buy in stores or over the internet are dried and fermented, so not technically raw at all.
It is thought that ancient Mesomericans used all parts of the cocoa pod, producing something similar to liquid chocolate from the cocoa beans and using the sweet pulp as a source of sugar from which they made alcoholic drinks.
By 500AD, the Olmec people were long gone, and the Maya were on the scene as an advanced and mature civilization. Archeological evidence from the time – in the form of writing and artifacts, shows that the Mayans used chocolate for ceremonial purposes as well as being a tasty nutritious drink consumed on a daily basis. Kind of how Catholics consume wine in religious ceremonies, but are quite likely to have a few bottles of the good stuff in the cellar at home. At this time, chocolate was consumed as a hot drink.
In the Aztec civilization – roughly a millennium later, the drink was served differently – although still primarily consumed as a liquid. It was taken cold and often highly spiced with chili and other tasty additives from the region.
At this point, the stage is set for the arrival of Europeans, who would bring chocolate out of the Americas, and after several thousand years in which the creation and consumption of chocolate changed very little, revolutionize its very nature and introduce it to the rest of the world.
Chocolate comes to Europe
Before chocolate came to Europe, Europeans had first to travel to the Americas to find it. Early explorers such as Chris Columbus were familiar with the bean, and the conquistador, Cortes, certainly supped it while not massacring the local population and otherwise engaging in antisocial behavior.
Back in Europe, Cocoa was among the first American produce to make it to the Spanish court. Bananas were great, potatoes aroused suspicion, and tobacco was habit-forming. But cocoa – or chocolate – was something special.
The nobles of Spain loved the bitter brown liquid, but they knew they would love it a whole lot more if it wasn’t quite so… bitter. They added sugar, they added honey, they added vanilla, and by the mid 17th century, it had spread throughout Europe. It was so very popular that the Catholic church exempted the bittersweet drink from fast day rules.
Chocolate production boomed, with huge slave plantations in the Americas and Africa devoted to growing, picking, and processing the crop. It was a brutal business.
But still, chocolate was consumed only as a liquid until the early 19th century when Dutch chemist Coenraad van Houten created a process to add alkaline salts to chocolate, reducing its bitterness, before pressing to remove a large proportion of the cocoa butter. The English Quaker, Joseph Fry followed this up with a way to make chocolate moldable by mixing the cocoa powder and sugar with melted cocoa butter.
And so, the chocolate bar was born.
Fry’s innovations made chocolate solid(ish), easy to make, and easy to carry around. But its evolution was far from over.
When was the last time you ate a lumpy slab of dark chocolate? For most people, the answer is probably either never or such a long time ago, I had almost forgotten the traumatic experience.
Well, up until 1875 that would have been your only choice, milk chocolate was invented by the Dutchman Daniel Peter, who mixed (also recently invented) powdered milk in with the chocolate liqueur.
Frequently asked questions:
Can I grow a cocoa tree in my garden?
Sure you can. Provided you live within around 10 degrees of the equator. Cocoa trees grow happily between these latitudes and cocoa pantations are spread across the world in locations as diverse as Indonesia, Madagascar, Africa, India, and Malaysia.
If you live outside these areas then, no. You probably can’t.
Is chocolate an aphrodisiac?
Science says ‘probably no on chocolate as an aphrodisiac. But there are some caveats. Consuming chocolate causes your brain to release feel-good chemicals causing your blood vessels to dilate, and reduce stress. In such a relaxed and engorged condition who wouldn’t want to get it on?
The compounds phenylethylamine and tryptophan (a precursor to serotonin) are found in cocoa, and anecdotal evidence suggests that these may be significant in putting you and your partner in the mood for love. As yet there is no solid evidence of this.
Can chocolate help you sleep?
There’s nothing better than a nice cup of hot chocolate before bedtime, but the science behind its soporific effects is mixed. While chocolate and some of the compounds in it can help you to relax – putting you in the mood for a snooze – chocolate also contains caffeine. Your mileage may vary.