As an unnamed Google sage once wrote, “Chocolate comes from cocoa which is a tree. That means it’s a plant. Therefore… chocolate is salad.”
In its native ground in Mexico and Central America, the cacao tree grows to 60 feet or taller and, when pollinated, forms 20 inch long sheaths, hanging from the trunk, which each house 30 to 40 almond shaped beans. There is evidence that cacao beans were harvested by the Aztec, Olmec and Maya peoples, among others (Pueblo Indians in the desert climate of the American southwest couldn’t grow cacao, so they imported the beans) at least as early as 450 BC, but some experts place the date much earlier. The beans typically were left out to ferment for a few days, then roasted, ground and seasoned with chiles, cornmeal, vanilla pods, flowers or other flavorings to produce a pungent, bitter liquid. No sweeteners were employed. The mixture was repeatedly poured back and forth between pots to create a thick foam on the top before drinking.
It is possible that Columbus took cacao beans to Spain after his fourth mission to the Americas in 1502, but one of the first descriptions of the drink was written in 1568 by Bernal Diaz, who was with Hernan Cortes in his conquest of the Aztec Empire in what is now Mexico:
“From time to time they served him (the Aztec emperor Montezuma) in cups of pure gold a certain drink made from cacao. It was said that it gave one power over women, but this I never saw. I did see them bring in more than fifty large pitchers of cacao with froth in it, and he drank some of it, the women serving him with great reverence.”
The Aztecs, who controlled a sizeable portion of Mesoamerica, believed that cacao beans were the gift of Quetzalcoatl, the god of wisdom, who was condemned by the other gods for sharing it with mortals. It was commonly viewed as an aphrodisiac, and was included in the rations of Aztec soldiers to give them strength. The beans were considered of sufficient value to be used as currency. Other civilizations, including the Olmecs and the Maya, also used cacao for religious ceremonies, feasts, festivals, tributes or for medicinal purposes.
Until the 16th century, the cacao tree was entirely unknown to Europe. After the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs, chocolate was imported to Europe (the word chocolate comes from the classical Nahuatl word xocolatl, which means bitter drink). The Spanish initially used it to treat illness, especially abdominal pain, because of its bitterness. But then something transformational happened; an unsung culinary genius added sugar or honey, which counteracted the bitterness and created an immediate sensation in the Spanish court.
The Spanish, concerned that this newfound delicacy required significant effort to obtain, tried to withhold it from the rest of Europe. But, over time, that endeavor failed. At the dawn of the 17th century Florentine merchant Francesco Carletti made contact with the Maya near what is now El Salvador and Guatemala, and cacao was discovered anew. A century later, in 1720, Caffe Florian was established in Venice and became a favorite of Casanova, not just because it specialized in that internationally renowned aphrodisiac, cioccolata calda, but also because it was then the only Venetian caffe that served women. In 1615 Anne, daughter of the King of Spain, married King Louis XIII of France and brought cacao with her to the French court where chocolat chaud promptly became the rage. When France colonized Haiti in 1684 it quickly established cacao plantations there to assure its own direct supply. By the end of the 17th century chocolate was established throughout Europe.
From the 17th through the 19th century processing cacao beans was a laborious, slow process. Rising European demand for chocolate led to the creation of plantations in English, Dutch and French colonies often worked by African slave labor. New processes that sped the production of chocolate emerged during the Industrial Revolution. Dutch chemist Coenraad van Houten invented a press in 1828 that removed half of the natural fat (cacao butter) from chocolate liquor, creating what was called “Dutch cocoa” and making chocolate cheaper and more consistent in quality. In 1847 Joseph Fry returned melted cacao butter to chocolate to make it moldable, and in 1875 Daniel Peter invented milk chocolate by mixing powdered milk invented by Henri Nestle with the liquor.
Lindt, a Swiss based chocolate company, was founded in Zurich in 1845, Cadbury was manufacturing boxed chocolates in England by 1868, and Milton S. Hershey bought chocolate processing equipment in 1893 at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago and soon was selling chocolate coated caramels. Machines changed chocolate from a drink to a solid food and caused the price of chocolate to drop to levels the middle class could afford. Today roughly two thirds of the world’s cacao is produced in western Africa, including Ivory Coast, Ghana, Nigeria and Cameroon. And there are reports that some cacao plantations are still worked by African slaves, this time with African, not European, masters.