Chocolatier.co.uk’s Guide to the History of Chocolate

Chocolate, produced from the fruit of the cocoa tree (Theobroma Cacao), has long fascinated mankind. Even the scientific name of the plant, given by the botanist Linnaeus, hints at its appeal, with Theobroma derived from the Greek for ‘food of the gods’ . Although today we think of chocolate as a solid edible, in fact, for much of its history,  chocolate was consumed in liquid form, as a highly-prized beverage. While today, chocolate is cheap and ubiquitous – an easily available snack food – for much of its history it was costly, luxurious and only available to an elite.

As with a number of food plants now widely eaten around the world,  cocoa traces its origins to Latin America. The origins of when and how cocoa was first cultivated have been lost in the midst of time, but it is now thought that the ancient Olmec civilization, which flourished  in what is now Mexico from around 1500 BC to around 400 BC, knew of cocoa and cultivated it.

The later Mayan civilization (A250 AD to 900AD) both cultivated the cocoa tree and consumed cocoa, using the beans to make a drink for their sacred rituals and also as a currency in trading.

After the decline of the Mayans, cocoa then played a key role in the Aztec civilization which flourished between the 13th and 16th centuries. In Aztec culture, cocoa was laden with symbolism,  used  in trading and to make a highly-prized, luxurious beverage consumed by the Aztec elite. To make the beverage the cocoa beans were ground, mixed sparingly with water, flavoured with different spices, including dried chilli and vanilla and stirred and poured from one vessel to another to create a highly-prized foam.

One of the earliest recorded encounters between Europeans and cocoa took place  in 1502 when the explorer Christopher Columbus, on a voyage  from the Spanish court, arrived in the New World. Ferdinand, Columbus’s son, captured a Mayan trading boat laden with cargo including what the Europeans took to be ‘almonds’ but which are now assumed to be cocoa beans.

In his account of the encounter, Ferdinand observed: ‘They seemed to hold these almonds at a great price, for when they were brought on board together with their goods, I observed that when any of these almonds fell, they all stooped to pick it up, as if an eye had fallen’.

It was, however, the Spanish conquest of first Yucatan then the valley of Mexico between 1517 and 1526 under Cortes that really brought cocoa to the attention of Europeans. The Spanish observed the role that cocoa played in Aztec society and the importance of the dark, bitter drink made from the beans.

Bernal Diaz, a Spanish witness to an Aztec banquet attended by the Aztec emperor Montezuma II,   wrote in his memoirs: ‘sometimes they brought him in cups of pure gold a drink made from the cocoa plant, which they said he took before visiting his wives. I saw them bring in a good fifty large jugs of this chocolate, all frothed up, of which he would drink a little.’

The word chocolate is generally thought to have been coined by the Spaniards,   mixing together the Mayan word for cocoa chocol and the Aztec word for water atl, so creating a Spanish word for the version of the Aztec drink that the Spaniards had begun to appreciate and to which they attributed valuable medicinal properties including that aphrodisiac ones.

Following the Spanish conquest, chocolate was gradually introduced to Western Europe. In 1544 chocolate was among the gifts brought by Kekchi Maya of Guatemala to Prince Philip of Spain. Chocolate, non-intoxicating and with its healthy attributes and reputation as an aphrodisiac reputation, became a fashionable,  highly-esteemed beverage among the European elite, particularly popular at the Spanish court.

The Spanish princess Maria Teresa,who married the French King Louis XIV in 1660 gave him a chest filled with chocolate as a wedding present and is reputed to have declared ‘my loves are only my chocolate and my king’.  As in Central America, cocoa was ground into a paste,  sold in cake form and then diluted with water or milk into a rich, thick drink.

The most popular flavourings added to chocolate in Europe were sugar, to sweeten its bitter flavour, and vanilla. In 1657 chocolate went on sale in London, advertised as an ‘excellent’ drink which ‘cures and preserves the body of many diseases’. The seventeenth-century diarist Samuel Pepys, always one to enjoy a trend,  frequently wrote in his diaries of drinking chocolate. Just as coffee was drunk in coffeehouses, the drink’s popularity was such that that chocolate houses became popular meeting places in 18th century London.

The rise of eating chocolate – that is chocolate confectionary – rather than drinking chocolate is closely linked with the Industrial Revolution. Its rise came about through the invention of ingenious machinery  and innovative processes which enabled cocoa to be worked on and used to produce an appealingly smooth-textured chocolate, very different from the previous granular creations. Many of today’s great chocolate companies played key roles in the development  of eating chocolate as we know it today.

A key breakthrough came about in Holland in 1825 when Coenraad Van Houten of the Dutch company, Van Houten – still known today for its cocoa – patented a hydraulic press came up with a cocoa press that separated most of the rich cocoa butter (the fat naturally present in large quantities in the cocoa bean) from the ground cocoa bean or ‘cocoa mass’.

Van Houten had invented the press in order to make a drinking chocolate which was less fatty and more flavourful and digistible, so initially cocoa butter was seen simply as a by-product. In 1828 Van Houten discovered that the cocoa could be alkalised, creating a dark-coloured, mild-tasting cocoa which could easily be mixed with water, a process known as ‘Dutching’.

Van Houten’s inventions paved the way for a major breakthrough in the history of chocolate. In 1847 Francis Fry, of Fry’s,  a British chocolate manufacturer, blended together cocoa liquor, sugar and cocoa butter to create a mixture which could be moulded and so created eating chocolate. This new chocolate incarnation was exhibited at the Great Paris Exhibition of 1851 and became very popular.

Fry’s set to work creating chocolate bars and chocolate-coated confectionary and by 1887 Fry’s had become the largest manufacturer of cocoa and chocolate in Britain. Their main rival in Britain was a company called Cadbury’s, who in 1866 produced a popular line of cocoa powder created using a model of Van Houten’s machine. Chocolate manufacturers sprang up in Western countries. 1894 saw Milton S Hershey set up the Hershey Chocolate Company in the USA and then go on to create the world’s largest chocolate-manufacturing plant in 1905.

Throughout the nineteenth century, important developments in manufacturing chocolate continued to be made. In 1876 a Swiss confectioner named Daniel Peter used a newly invented dry milk powder invented by fellow Swiss Henri Nestle to create milk chocolate. In 1879 the Swiss Rudolphe Lindt invented a machine called a conche, which mixed together ground cacao, sugar and milk power for several hours creating a smooth paste, rather than a granular one. Lindt also increased the amount of cocoa butter added into chocolate, creating a smoother-textured chocolate.

The rise of chocolate manufacturing and mass-production meant that for the first time in its history, chocolate was both affordable and widely available. Nowadays eating chocolate is sold all over the world. The way chocolate is produced today ranges from chocolatiers working lovingly by hand to produce small quantities of exquisite chocolates to mass-production in factories using the most sophisticated machinery.

Jenny Linford