Chocolate is derived from Theobroma cacao seeds, better known as cocoa beans, which are indigenous to South America. The very earliest discovery of chocolate being processed for human consumption comes from drinking cups that have been dated to around 1,750 BC. These cups were found in Olmec sites, this was Central America’s earliest great civilisation, predating the Maya and Aztecs by about 2 millennia. It also means the history of chocolate is nearly 4,000 years old.
Indeed the ritual of creating a drinking chocolate has been the main way chocolate has been consumed for most of history. With the Aztecs, their version of the drink was quite bitter (as pure chocolate is, sugar was added later for European tastes) and chillies were added as flavouring giving it a very spicy, bitter and savoury flavour to it. This drink was called xocolātl or chocolatl to be a little more phonetic about it. Translating it, it literally means “bitter water”. This is a stark indicator that the original recipe was not for some kind of desert.
There is evidence that cocoa became integral to all the societies of Mesoamerica. The Maya used the drink in some religious ceremonies and the Aztecs accepted cocoa beans as tribute and even used it as currency at times. Making it far more than just a delicious treat. Indeed chocolate has antioxidants and caffeine in it and small amounts have been proven to lower blood pressure (in its pure form). So chocolate as a natural beverage is actually good for you.
To the first Europeans encountering this frothy, spiced, bitter drink it was not an instant hit and while Columbus did bring some back to Spain (in one of his later voyages) it did take a few decades for the Spanish court to get a taste for this chocolatl. There was only a regular flow of cocoa beans after Cortés conquered the Aztecs in an exception display of bravery and cold blooded murder. The fall of the Aztec Empire is thought to have involved the death of around a quarter of a million people- is a bar of chocolate worth that price?
However once the Spanish royal court got a taste for it in the early 16th Century, it was not only a novel delicacy to enjoy, but a reminder of their dominions across the ocean. The ingredients and recipe of this drink became a jealously guarded secret and a sign of the supreme prestige that the Spanish monarchy had. It was at this time that the bitterness was countered with either sugar or honey and the rich taste became more tolerable and less bitter.
It was also during this period that England was carrying out government backed piracy against Spanish shipping in the Atlantic. These so called “privateers” were after gold, silver and precious gems and they did frequently come across sacks of cocoa beans on these galleys . But finding them inedible and of an unknown origin, they were usually cast overboard, the English pirates not realising that they had found something that was in a way more valuable than the all the precious metals they had just acquired.
A century later and the secret had clearly leaked out because it was becoming popular around Europe. However as demand grew the need to grow both it and the sugar to sweeten it also rapidly grew. To grow sugar cane and cocoa beans was a brutal, backbreaking job that nobody wanted to do, so it became the standard job for slaves.
You read that right, one of the stimuli of the horrifyingly brutal and industrialised black slave trade was Europe’s appetite for not only sugar but chocolate too. Again is that worth the price of your love of chocolate?
By the 18th and 19th centuries you could have a sweet drinking chocolate or a solid chocolate confectionary. It had taken a couple of centuries but chocolate consumption in Europe had evolved into what we recognise today. The original drink had become all but forgotten. As a side bar to this, Cadbury World near Birmingham used to have an area on the history of chocolate that included a chance to taste the original Aztec recipe. I tried it and quite liked it, but it was so different to what people in general were expecting that there were enough complaints that Cadbury stopped producing it.
The great irony of all this is as its popularity rose so did the areas that cultivated it (much like the other great exports from America- tobacco and potatoes. Imagine a world without those three things). Many European Empires began growing it in other tropical countries (using slave labour) and today West Africa produces almost two-thirds of the world’s cocoa with the Ivory Coast producing 43% of the entire world’s cocoa beans.
So from a bitter drink, to currency, to a catalyst to mass slavery, the history of chocolate is long, complex and bloody. That’s worth remembering the next time you have some.