Undoubtedly, a cup of luxurious and delightful hot chocolate drink is one of the most adored drinks across the planet today. Along with all that, it also has an entrancing history behind it. An unsweetened cocoa drink or a currency, it has seen it all!
It is hard to tell when exactly did chocolate make its place in people’s kitchens, but it somewhat dates back to around 4000 years ago. The ancient American continent was probably the first place where chocolate was extremely valued. Olmecs, one of the ancient civilizations in Mesoamerica, were the first people to begin the practice of consuming cacao drink as medicine.
Followed by Mayans, the cacao seeds were mixed with chillies, water and cornmeal. They had a slightly different approach to preparing their cacao drink. They poured the holy mixture from one pot to another, creating a thick foamy beverage called “xocolatl”, which means bitter water. Not only that they consumed it but astoundingly, also revered it and involved cacao in festive occasions and rituals!
Surprisingly, for millennia, nobody was aware of the heavenly taste of cacao mass paired with sweetness.
The journey of your favourite chocolate bar
Chocolate is born as a fruit of cacao trees, also known as Theobroma Cacao which is native to central and south America. Since it has a bitter taste, it is first fermented, then dried and finally roasted. The fermentation process transforms the flavour of the crude cacao into what we associate with chocolate. Followed by roasting, which is the most exciting part of the process, the beautiful and rich euphoric aroma of chocolate can be sensed.
After roasting, the beans are winnowed to remove the shells around them to separate the cacao nib, which is the primary ingredient for making chocolate. Machines crack the beans open and powerful fans blow over the beans carrying the shells away and leaving behind the cacao nib.
The nibs are then ground to produce cacao mass which is nothing but chocolate in its rough form. This is called chocolate liquor and is usually blended with cocoa butter in various quantities to make different types of chocolate that you’d love in your luscious chocolate truffle or a baked meal.
Cacao beans as currency
Fast forward to the 15th century, cocoa bean currency was a commercially active economy of the Aztec empire. Chocolate was more of an extravagance, limited to the elite class. What’s more intriguing is that it was ranked much above the gold dust in those times! As per the Aztec belief, chocolate was a gift from the god Quetzalcoatl. Girolamo Benzoni, a Milanese merchant and traveller also mentioned the greatness of chocolate, a few centuries ago. He wrote that the Spanish inhabitants of Guatemala held their wealth in the form of cacao beans! A lot of such travelogues have been found to appreciate the way chocolate was ruling its little world, with revelations of course. The history of cocoa beans as money stands as a clear fact that money evolves in a social context with time. The use of chocolate money did not have its full stop yet.
The use of cocoa beans as money continued into the nineteenth century. The remote Indian tribes in Mexico and Central America kept making small changes with cocoa beans and the evolution of chocolate currency continued. Within these tribes, the smallest silver coin was equal to 40 cocoa beans, and this practice continued into the twentieth century as well!
From the Americas to Europe
It is debatable how exactly chocolate reached Europe. Multiple sources have multiple stories! But it is a collective belief that chocolate arrived first in Spain and then travelled the rest of Europe. Spanish kept chocolate a secret for nearly a century. As soon as the spell broke, it reached France and then Britain. According to a tale, Christopher Columbus is believed to have brought the first cocoa beans back to Europe from his visit to the 'New World', the Americas and Oceania between 1502 and 1504. However, the Spanish Conquistador Don Hernán Cortés, who first realised their commercial value, brought cocoa beans back to Spain in around 1528. This is when Europe, in its own good time, was indulging in “chocolate mania”. By 1585, Spain started importing chocolate to savour fancy beverages.
The Aztec spicy chocolate recipe did not suit Europeans. Naturally, they discovered new tastes and made their very own chocolate recipes. New flavours and ideas kept evolving the pure cacao mass. Our darling chocolate soon turned into luxury and fashionable chocolate houses started popping up in metropolises. But chocolate was still being produced by hand, which was a slow and laborious process, which made it fall only into the realm of the aristocracy.
Cacao and the chocolate factory
An obvious question that must strike some of you would be, how did a bitter bean which was predominantly drunk as a beverage, reach us as our dearest delight? As you now know, chocolate was popular in its molten form; the first solid chocolate bar was produced in 1847 by J. S. Fry & Sons, better known as Fry's. It was the first British chocolate company that produced chocolate in mass, followed by Cadbury in 1849. The entire chocolate industry got revolutionised and from there it got its new face. This is how cacao got into the “chocolate factory.”
The modern chocolate
Today, be it valentine’s or any other festive occasion, chocolate has earned its place deep into our gift baskets. But it had its reputation as an aphrodisiac for a very long time. Unlike today, this beverage was considered appropriate for adults only and was kept out of children’s reach. Contrary to this, modern chocolate has a different story. It has made its way to everyone’s heart. So, the next time you get to your fridge to take a scoop of your favourite chocolate ice cream after dinner, think of the long way chocolate has travelled, evolving and transforming from sheer bitterness to ultimate chocolate bliss.