Origin and Historical Significance of Chocolate

Theobroma cacao L. is the botanical name for ‘cacao’ and refers to the tree, the pods and the unfermented beans from the pods. ‘Cocoa’ refers to the manufactured product: the powder sold for drinking or food manufacturing purposes. It’s also used to describe the fermented cocoa beans in bulk. Cacao (Theobroma cacao L.) belongs to the family Malvaceae and originated as an understory tree species in the tropical rainforests of the upper Amazonian region of South America. 

An Abridged History:

  • 1500 B.C.-300 B.C. - The Olmec Indians are believed to be the first to grow cocoa beans (“kakawa”) as a domestic crop. Cacao trees have grown wild for possibly 10,000 years. The Olmec civilization lasts to about 300 B.C.

  • 300 B.C.-500 A.D. - The Olmec give much of their culture to the Maya, including “xocoatl,” sho-KWA-til. Consumption of cocoa beans is restricted to the Mayan social elite, in the form of an unsweetened cocoa drink made from the ground beans.

  • A.D. 600-1000 - The Maya migrate into northern regions of South America and Mesoamerica, establishing the earliest known cocoa plantations in the Yucatan. Nobles drink frothy “cacau” from tall pottery. Beans are a valuable commodity, used both as currency and as unit of calculation. Ancient Mexicans believe that Tonacatecutli, the goddess of food, and Calchiuhtlucue, the goddess of water, are guardian goddesses of cocoa. Each year they perform human sacrifices for the goddesses, giving the victim cocoa at his last meal.

  • 1200s - The Maya begin to trade with the Aztecs. The Aztecs called it “cacahuatl” (ca-ca-WAH-tel), meaning warm or bitter liquid. Xocolatl is flavored with local spices including chile, cinnamon, pepper, and vanilla. It was thickened with cornmeal, frothed in a bowl, and served at room temperature.

  • 1300s - Cacahuatl becomes popular among the Aztec upper classes. They saw cacao as a gift of the plumed serpent god Quetzalcoatl, the god of light. The Aztecs become the first to tax the beans, and restrict it to noblemen, priests, officials, warriors, and rich traders. Chocolate's restorative and energizing properties make it a medicinal revitalizer, a ceremonial beverage, and a believed source of longevity.

  • 1400s - Christopher Columbus is said to have brought cacao beans to King Ferdinand from his visits to the New World. The beans were overlooked in favor of other treasures Columbus offered.

  • 1500s - Hernan Cortez conquered the Aztec empire and brought back cacao beans, equipment, and recipes for preparing chocolate from Mexico to the Spanish court of King Charles V. It was greeted with excitement, but heavily taxed, so only the rich could afford it. Monks in Spanish monasteries are appointed as the processors of the cocoa beans to keep chocolate a secret for nearly another century. It makes a profitable industry for Spain, which planted cocoa trees in its overseas colonies. The most likely scenario for the development of the word “chocolate” is that the Spaniards combined the Maya word chocol, meaning “hot,” and the Aztec atl, meaning “water,” to produce chocolat.

  • 1600s - The first publication of a recipe for chocolate is by the Spanish doctor Antonio Colmenero de Ledesma, based on the Aztec recipe. The bitter flavor is enhanced by adding almonds, anise, cinnamon, flowers, hazelnuts, and vanilla. The exact spice blend depended on the ailment being treated.

    The first chocolate house was opened in London by a Frenchman. The shop is called The Coffee Mill and Tobacco Roll. Costing 10 to 15 shillings per pound, chocolate contained to be a beverage for the elite.

  • 1700s - European countries colonize much of the world, and in the process acquire cacao plantations that ensure their own supply of cocoa beans. The French colonized western India and Madagascar, the Dutch, Ceylon and Java, the Belgians, the Congo, the British, western India, the Germans, the Cameroon and the Portuguese, Brazil.

  • 1828 - Coenraad Van Houten invents the cocoa press, a hydraulic press, to squeeze out some of the cocoa butter from the beans, leaving behind the defatted cocoa powder. Van Houten’s machine reduces the fat content by nearly half and creates a “press cake” that is pulverized into a fine powder. This cocoa powder is treated with alkaline salts so that it mixes more easily with water. The final product has a darker color and the beverage has a milder taste and a smoother consistency. The invention helps cut prices and the overall Industrial Revolution enables the mass production of chocolate, widely spreading its popularity and affordability.

  • 1847 - Joseph Fry’s grandson Francis Fry, then head of the firm J.S. Fry & Sons, discovers a way to mix some of the cocoa butter back into the cocoa powder and adds sugar, creating a paste that can be molded. He calls this “eating chocolate” (“chocolat delicieux a manger”). This is the first modern chocolate bar. Conching has not yet been invented, so it is not the smooth, silky bar we know today but a rough, grainy chocolate.

    Cadbury brothers sell a similar product two years later

  • 1860 - Ghiradelli, who imported beans from Peru to San Francisco to sell to gold prospectors, has discovered how to extract cocoa butter from ground cocoa to create a very soluble cocoa powder.

  • 1861 - Richard Cadbury creates the first known heart-shaped candy box for Valentine’s Day. By 1868 he started the first mass-marketing of boxed chocolates.

  • 1895 - Milton S. Hershey sells his first Hershey Bar in Pennsylvania, using modern, mass-production techniques that make chocolate affordable to the mass population.

  • 1912 - Jean Neuhaus invents the chocolate shell that can be filled with soft centers and nut pastes, offering variety to the previous dipping or enrobing of chocolate.

  • 1939 - World War II rations includes chocolate: in Europe it is rationed to 4 ounces per person per week.

  • 2000s - Exotic spices such as saffron, peppercorns, and lemongrass are now commonplace in chocolate, as are everyday kitchen foods such as citrus peel, potato chips, and sea salt. Chocolate has returned to its Mesoamerican roots. Many chocolatiers now offer some version of “Aztec” chocolate, spiced with the original “new world” flavors of chile and cinnamon. The market has seen growth in organic and kosher brands and high percentage cacao chocolate is recognized as a functional food, delivering antioxidants.

  • 2018 - The newest innovation in 78 years—since white chocolate—is introduced to consumers. It is ruby chocolate, a pink chocolate made with a particular variety of cacao bean that results in the pink color.