It’s December! Soon, it will be Christmas. For me, it’s a good excuse to eat more chocolate—because I don’t consume much of it during the rest of the year! I don’t know why. Probably some guilt connected to my weight. Anyway, this led to my article of the day as I asked myself:
Who Created Chocolate?
When we are talking about chocolate and its invention, we are not simply talking about the culture of cacao beans. Here is the definition of chocolate by the NCA (National Confectioners Association):
The cocoa “beans” that form the basis of chocolate are actually seeds from the fruit of the cacao tree, which primarily grows in tropical areas near the Equator. The seeds grow inside a pod-like fruit and are covered with a juicy white pulp. How is it made? To make chocolate, cocoa farmers crack open the pods, scoop out the seeds, ferment them and dry them. The beans are shipped to factories all over the world, where manufacturers inspect and clean them, then roast and grind them into a dense liquid called chocolate liquor. More pressing, rolling, mixing with sugar and other ingredients, and heating and cooling finally yields this delicious treat.
Chocolate is known for being a “New World” food. It was not introduced in Europe until the 16th century via Spain. It seems that Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés was the first European to learn about chocolate in 1519. But where? In the court of Montezuma, the ninth Emperor of the Aztec Empire.
xocolatl = Chocolate
The Spanish word “chocolate” is derived from the Nahuatl (Aztec language) word “xocolatl.”
Chocolate was highly valued in Ancient Aztec and Mayan cultures. Apparently, cacao beans were even sometimes used as money, but it was primarily a beverage, one that was included in religious ceremonies and sometimes used for medicinal purposes.
“The idea of using chocolate as a flavoring in cook food would have been horrifying to the Aztecs—just as Christians could not conceive of using communion wine to make, say, coq au vin. In all of the pages of Sahagun that deal with Aztec cuisine and with chocolate, there is not a hint that it ever entered into an Aztec dish.”
—True History of Chocolate, Sophie D. Coe & Michael D. Coe (more quotes and information can be found on the food timeline website).
The history of chocolate started in Mesoamerica (a historical region and cultural area in southern North America and most of Central America) where the cacao tree is native—Theobroma cacao trees originated in the Amazon and were later farmed through Central America, up to Mexico.
The first use of chocolate as food has not been documented, obviously, but archeological evidence of its presence has been found. The Olmecs, one of the earliest known major Mesoamerican civilizations, who flourished from 1500 BCE to about 400 BCE, consume cacao. Traces of it were found in ancient artifacts.
The Olmecs introduced chocolate to the Maya Empire with great success. In fact, Mayans were the first to really transformed the cacao beans—by fermenting, drying, grinding, and roasting them to make a paste or a liquor—around 450 BCE.
The European Chocolate
For a long time after that, more than 4,000 years later, the Spanish came and conquered. They bring back chocolate with them, introduced it to the Royal court, and it became a treat for the rich.
As the English, Dutch, and French colonized the New World, Cacao plantations spread [encouraging slavery], and production ramped up. In Europe, inventors started to find new ways to work the beans. In 1729, the first mechanical cacao grinder was invented in England by Walter Churchman, but the Industrial Revolution introduced real changes.
Dutch chemist Coenraad van Houten first introduced alkaline salts to chocolate, to reduce its bitterness, in 1815, then introduced in 1828 the “Dutch cocoa,” after creating a press to remove about half the natural fat from chocolate liquor. A big step to make chocolate solid.
In 1875, Swiss entrepreneur Daniel Peter invented milk chocolate by mixing powdered milk with chocolate liquor. Rodolphe Lindt invented the conching machine four years after that, introducing a way to improve the taste and texture of chocolate. At the beginning of the 20th century, Nestlé, Cadbury, and Hershey were also in business, selling boxed chocolate, chocolate-coated caramels, and more delicacies.