Ancient people of the Americas – Olmecs, Mayans and Aztecs revered the bitter cocoa drink and drank it at ceremonies. Colonialists kidnapped Africans to work in plantations. Nowadays, we savour its delicious flavour, affordable and abundant.
July 7 marks World Chocolate Day. A favourite food for adults and children alike, chocolate’s history goes back millenia.
Speaking to Amanda Fiegl of the Smithsonian, Alexandra Leaf, a “chocolate educator” says "I often call chocolate the best-known food that nobody knows anything about."
So let’s explore the delightful cacao tree and its offerings, whose name in Latin, Theobroma cacao, means "food of the gods."
Cocoa’s roots go back to the Amazon, at least 4,000 years before our time. A divine drink – yes, the ancient peoples who populated the Amazon drank cocoa, rather than eat it – it was used in many rituals.
The Mayans, who cultivated the cocoa plant, regarded cocoa pods as symbols of life and fertility.
The Aztecs “attributed the creation of the cocoa plant to their god Quetzalcoatl who descended from heaven on a beam of a morning star carrying a cocoa tree stolen from paradise.”
In both the Mayan and Aztec cultures “cocoa was the basis for a thick, cold, unsweetened drink called xocoatl, believed to be a health elixir.” The drink was consumed unsweetened as the Mayans and Aztecs did not know about sugar, and used alternative spices to enhance its flavours, such as hot chilli peppers.
Fiegl writes that “According to Chloe Doutre-Roussel's book The Chocolate Connoisseur, Aztec sacrifice victims who felt too melancholy to join in ritual dancing before their death were often given a gourd of chocolate (tinged with the blood of previous victims) to cheer them up.”
Cocoa beans were also used as currency by the Aztecs, who “believed that chocolate was a gift from the god Quetzalcoatl, and drank it as a refreshing beverage, an aphrodisiac, and even to prepare for war.”
Chocolate arrives in Europe
Chocolate first arrived in Spain, with tales of Christopher Columbus bringing the almond-like beans to Spanish court in 1502. There are alternative reports noting that Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes, introduced to chocolate by the Aztecs, brought cocoa beans with him back to Spain, or friars who presented Guatemalan Mayans to Philip II of Spain in 1544 brought back cocoa beans along with them from the Americas.
The World Cocoa Foundation delves into the dark history of the cocoa bean: “When the Spanish conquistadors arrived in the New World and began the process of invading, colonising, and ultimately destroying the native cultures, they also discovered the value of the local cacao crop.”
The Spaniards had their own twist to the drink: they added sugar and spices such as cinnamon to sweeten the bitter taste of raw cocoa. Their take became incredibly popular in Spain, “who kept the production method a secret from other Europeans for almost 100 years after their discovery.”
Food historian Sam Bilton narrates a humorous incident in which the English, who at first were unfamiliar with cocoa beans, mistook them for something much less palatable: “Whilst the Spanish, French and Italians embraced this new drink, the English lagged behind in their enthusiasm. There is an account of English pirates seizing a Spanish cargo of cocoa beans in 1579. Assuming the beans to be sheep droppings, and having no idea of their value, they torched the lot.”
Other European countries soon followed the cocoa craze that began in Spain, such as France and Italy. With the high demand and the wiping out of local communities by colonialists, the English, Dutch and French invaders needed cheap workers to labour over the cocoa plantations. They brought slaves from Africa to the New World to work the fields, and planted cocoa in Africa, where much of the crop is still produced to this day.
Mass production of chocolate
In the Netherlands, Coenraad Van Houten invented the cocoa press in 1828. His device separated cocoa solids from cocoa butter, with the resulting Dutch cocoa powder tastier and cheaper.
It was a British company who came up with the first chocolate bar, however. In the mid-19th century Fry & Sons found a way to mix cocoa powder with sugar and cocoa butter which they poured into a mould – the first time a chocolate bar was designed for eating, rather than being ingested as a drink.
While Fry & Sons became the biggest chocolate maker in the world by the mid-1800s, it was their rival Cadbury’s that received a royal warrant as the chocolate maker to the Queen in 1853.
Up until then, the cacao variety used in cocoa drinks and chocolate bars was criollo from Mexico and Guatemala. With the discovery of forastero cacao, a lower quality but more productive form, from Ecuador, production of chocolate was cheaper – not to mention the slave workforce toiling away in cocoa plantations.
The Portuguese eventually created plantations in Africa as well. Bilton notes that “By the early 20th century cacao plantations were widely established in Nigeria, the Gold Cost and the Ivory Coast,” pointing out the irony that “the majority of the world’s cacao beans are now grown in African countries where so much of the enforced labour for the Americas was sourced.”
Chocolate a beneficial food source
In observation of World Chocolate Day, dietitian Canel Oner Sayar of Medipol University Esenler Hospital told Anadolu Agency that healthy chocolate contains at least 70 percent cocoa.
“Due to environmental factors, the raw material of chocolate, the cocoa plant, is looking at a threatened future. The chocolates today prepared with semi-solid vegetable fats or solid fats, starting with palm oil, [as well as] soy lecithin, sweeteners, added aromas and stabilisers, are far from being beneficial for your health,” she concluded.