Chocolate - Food of the gods
Origin of Chocolate – gift of the gods. Source: (Photo from www.ancient-origins.net)
These days, chocolate is a popular sweet treat and every holiday that comes around is another excuse to eat chocolate in various shapes and forms. Without it, there would be no s’mores or brownies, and a hot fudge sundae would just be vanilla ice cream with a cherry on top. But what many people don’t know is that chocolate actually began as a bitter beverage.
Chocolate comes from the beans of the cacao plant, not to be confused with cocoa, which is the powdered form of chocolate. The actual term “chocolate” is thought to have evolved from the Aztec word “xocoatl” which is the name of the bitter beverage that was brewed from the cacao beans. The cacao tree is called Theobroma cacao in Latin, which means “food of the gods.”
Chocolate has long been thought to have been around for about two thousand years; however, recently discovered evidence suggests that it was produced as early as 1900 B.C. in what is now Mexico. Pottery was excavated in Honduras which had traces of cacao residue dating back to 1400 B.C.
The ancient Mesoamericans, which included the Olmec, Mayan, and Aztec civilizations, would ferment and roast the beans before grinding them into a paste. That paste would then be brewed with water, honey, vanilla, and various spices. The chocolate drink they created was thought to possess spiritual qualities as it had mood enhancing properties. As a result, the Mayans worshipped a god of cacao and the chocolate was considered divine, only to be consumed by rulers, warriors, priests, and nobles during sacred ceremonies of birth, marriage, and death. During sacrifices, victims who were too depressed to join the ritual dance before their death would drink from a gourd of chocolate mingled with the blood of previous victims to improve their spirits.
During the fourteenth century, the Aztecs took over much of Mesoamerica. Because the hub of their civilization lay over the dry highlands of Mexico, they were unable to grow the cacao beans themselves. Instead, they began trading with the Mayans for them. They valued the cacao beans so much that they used them as currency, with one turkey hen being worth one hundred beans. A tamale, on the other hand, was only worth one bean. Many claim that the sixteenth-century Aztec ruler Montezuma would drink gallons of chocolate every day because he thought it would increase his libido. According to legend, Spanish conquistador, Hernán Cortés, was welcomed by Montezuma, who had mistaken him for a god, with a banquet that included the chocolate drink. Rather than returning with the silver and gold for which they had come to Mexico, the explorers returned with chocolate instead.
But the chocolate was not an instant hit with the European explorers, one of whom described it as “a bitter drink for pigs.” However, they soon discovered they could make it taste better by adding cane sugar and cinnamon. After that, it caught on quickly and, due to the expense of importing it, became a symbol of wealth as only the elite could afford it. It was, however, a well-kept secret by Spain until the marriage of Spanish King Philip III’s daughter to King Louis XIII of France in 1615. Afterward, its popularity spread throughout Europe and it was thought to have nutritional and medicinal properties. But it remained a luxury only the rich could afford until the invention of the steam engine in the eighteenth century.
In 1828, Dutch chemist Coenraad Johannes van Houten invented the cocoa press, which would remove the cacao butter from the roasted beans and then pulverize the remains into a fine powder. The powder, which became known as Dutch cocoa, could then be mixed with liquids and other ingredients and poured into molds. This led to the creation of solid chocolate. It also reduced production costs, thus making chocolate more affordable. In 1847, Joseph Fry of the British chocolate company J.S. Fry & Sons created the first chocolate bar by adding the cacao butter back into the Dutch cocoa and adding sugar. By 1868, Cadbury was on the scene selling boxes of chocolate candies and Nestle came along a few years later with the introduction of milk chocolate. In 1879, Rodolphe Lindt invented the conching machine, which improved the texture and taste by making it smoother and creamier.
Chocolate was so valuable in America that during the Revolutionary War it was often used in place of the soldier’s wages. While something like that would not work in today’s society, chocolate remains a valuable commodity, with the average American consuming twelve pounds of it each year. It is estimated that more than $75 billion is spent annually on chocolate throughout the world, though much of the chocolate today contains more sugar and additives than actual cacao. However, premium chocolates can still be found through independent chocolatiers as well as from major companies like Hershey’s who have expanded their product lines by acquiring small artisanal producers, such as Scharffen Bergere and Dagoba.
Like it? Share with your friends!