Historians believe the Olmecs first discovered that the cocoa fruit was edible by observing rats eating it with gluttonous vigour. They soon realized the tree produced a fruit with a thousand flavours and nearly as many uses.
The Olmecs (1500-400 BC) were almost certainly the first humans to consume chocolate, originally in the form of a drink. They crushed the cocoa beans, mixed them with water and added spices, chillies and herbs (Coe’s Theory). They began cultivating cocoa in equatorial Mexico. Over time, the Mayans (600 BC) and Aztecs (400 AD) developed successful methods for cultivating cocoa as well. The cocoa bean was used as a monetary unit and as a measuring unit, 400 beans equalling a Zontli and 8000 equalling a Xiquipilli. During their wars with the Aztecs and the Mayans, the Chimimeken people’s preferred method of levying taxes in conquered regions was in the form of cocoa beans.
For these civilizations, cocoa was a symbol of abundance. It was used in religious rituals dedicated to Quetzalcoatl, the Aztec god responsible for bringing the cocoa tree to man, to Chak ek Chuah, the Mayan patron saint of cocoa and as an offering at the funerals of noblemen.
Cocoa production advanced as people migrated throughout Meso-America but consumption of the drink remained a privilege for the upper classes and for soldiers during battle. By this time, the re-invigorating and fortifying virtues of cocoa were becoming widely recognized and embraced.
Discovery and Commercialization of Cocoa (16th century)
In 1502, Columbus got his first glimpse of cocoa beans on a native canoe during a stop-over in Nicaragua, but he did not appreciate its awesome potential value. The true importance of this “brown gold” was not recognized until Hernando Cortez drank it with the Aztec emperor Montezuma, and brought it back to the Spanish court in 1528 along with the equipment necessary for brewing the drink. Even then, it is unlikely anyone envisaged its ultimate importance as a world commodity.
Following a victorious war against the native tribes and the downfall of the Aztec civilization, Cortez intensified cultivation efforts in New Spain, with the intention of developing a lucrative trade with Europe.
The Spanish court soon fell under the spell of this exotic elixir and adapted it to their taste, adding cane sugar, vanilla, cinnamon and pepper. Initially Spain reserved cocoa for its exclusive use, carefully guarding its existence from the rest of the world. They were so successful keeping cocoa secret that when a group of English pirates captured a Spanish galleon, not recognizing the value of the weighty cargo of beans, they burned them!
In 1585, the first cargo of cocoa beans arrived on the Iberian Peninsula from New Spain, launching the trade in cocoa, and resulting in the establishment of the first chocolate shops, thus, ushering in a new era of rapidly growing demand for this mysterious nectar from the new world.
The expansion of cocoa in Europe (17th – 19th centuries)
During the 17th century, cocoa began arriving in other ports throughout Europe, effortlessly conquering every region’s palate. Chocolate beverages were first embraced by the French court following the royal marriage of King Louis XIII to the Spanish Princess Anne of Austria in 1615.
In 1650 chocolate beverages first appeared in England coinciding with the arrival of tea from China and coffee from the Middle East. For many years it remained a treat reserved for the upper classes. In 1659 the first chocolate-confection maker opened in Paris. In 1720, Italian chocolate-makers received prizes in recognition of the quality of their products. Finally, in 1765, North America discovered the virtues of cocoa.
In this way, chocolate developed across Europe and around the world, and slowly the presentation of chocolate changed. The first chocolate lozenge appeared in England in 1674; cocoa powder was originally produced by the Dutch in 1828; the chocolate bar originated in Great Brittan in 1830; and, the Swiss successfully entered the chocolate market with milk chocolate in 1830, followed shortly thereafter with chocolate imbued with hazelnuts.
Thanks to this extended period of culinary and manufacturing innovation, chocolate consumption rapidly and continuously expanded. Pharmacological uses for cocoa and cocoa by-products were also widely explored, not too surprising given the properties its earliest consumers attributed to it (i.e. strengthening, restorative, aphrodisiac).
Cocoa During the Industrial Era
The industrial era led to fundamental changes for chocolate and cocoa, impacting everyone from grower to end consumer. Spain, the first exporter of chocolate, opened the first chocolate factory in 1780 in Barcelona, followed shortly thereafter by Germany and Switzerland in the inexorable, relentless march towards full industrialization of cocoa.
The origins of cocoa also gradually changed. Europeans began increasingly to colonise Africa, and they brought the cocoa tree with them. Cocoa was successfully planted in Sao Tome and Principe and then migrated as plantations spread throughout the African continent. The industrial epoch led to the slow decline of production in South America, despite its expansion from its original growing areas to the Amazon River and saw a new cocoa empire emerge on African soil. In effect, since the start of the 20th century, Africa has taken the lead and has become the biggest cocoa producer.
Industrialization has had a marked democratizing effect on chocolate, transforming it from a rare delicacy reserved for royals, to a widely available and readily affordable treat for the masses. Not surprisingly, a plethora of new chocolate products began appearing as it became more popular, including chocolate with dried fruits, with liqueurs, fondu, praline, stuffed chocolates, powdered, spreads, frostings, pastes, hard candies, soft drinks and many, many others. Either hand-made or as a fast food, it is now an established part of the world’s vocabulary and diet. Many improvements have been made since its ancient origins as a drink. Anthelme Brillat-Savarin poetically summed up our universal love affair with chocolate “What is health? It is chocolate!”
France, 1776 Doret invents a hydraulic process to grind cocoa beans into a paste, facilitating the first large-scale production of chocolate.
Holland, 1828 Chemist Coenraad van Houten invents a process for extracting cocoa butter, allowing for the extraction of cocoa powder. This makes chocolate more homogenous and less costly to produce.
England, 1847 Solid chocolate is offered to the general public for the first time, by the English company Fry and Sons (prior to this time, solid chocolate was available exclusively within royal courts).
Switzerland, 1830-1879 Chocolate flavored with hazelnuts is followed by milk chocolate, developed by Daniel Peter and Henri Nestlé respectively. During the same period, Rodolphe Lindt develops the chocolate fondant (fondu).
United States, 1893 Sweet maker Milton Hershey spots chocolate making equipment at the Worlds Fair in Chicago and begins production at a factory in Pennsylvania.
Chocolate followed the French and American infantry into the trenches of the First World War, and effectively all US chocolate production was requisitioned for the military during the Second World War. In France, chocolate sweets appeared between the wars, and French pralines (chocolates filled with almond and other nut based fillings) were considered the most fashionable. This inspired chocolate producers to experiment with new flavors, such as almond paste, cherries in aqua vitae, nougat, caramel…