A journey through the history of chocolate reveals that this mysterious food has woven its story throughout multiple cultures and continents impacting civilizations culturally, socially, economically and spiritually. A study of the history of chocolate begins by going back in time to the realm of the Maya Indians and the Olmec Civilizations of Central America.
The word cacao was found in the Olmec vocabulary nearly 3,000 years ago. The hot, humid, but shady climate of the tropical rain forests of this region was perfect for growing cacao plants. The Maya felt the cacao tree was owned by the gods and the pods were offered as a gift from the gods to man. The cacao pod became the symbol of fertility and life in the Mayan culture.
Later, in the 18th century, a Swedish botanist named Linnaeus, called the cacao tree theobroma cacao, which means "drink of the gods". It was the Mayan people that did indeed make a drink from the cacao pods. This drink was considered a "royal" brew enjoyed by the noblemen and kings and was often used in sacred rituals. Hot chili peppers were added to flavor it or maize was often added to change its texture.
In 1502, Columbus, on his 4th and final voyage to the Caribbean, was given a sack of cacao seeds as a form of payment. He was unsure of the worth of the seeds, so the Aztecs made him a drink from the pods to show him its potential. They felt this drink was a source of energy, spiritual wisdom, and enhanced sexual powers. They used it to fortify their warriors when in battle. Although Columbus did not personally care for it, he accepted the seeds in payment, being curious as to its value upon returning to Spain.
Years later, when Cortes arrived in the New World, he noted that the Aztecs used the cacao beans as their treasury and kept huge storehouses of the seeds. Cortes was offered a cacao plantation and a royal welcome from the Aztec ruler Montezuma, when he mistakenly thought Cortes was the reincarnation of a former god and king. This was the beginning of the downfall of the Aztec Empire, but helped Cortes realize that this crop had tremendous potential led him to establish cacao plantations throughout the Caribbean.
When Columbus and Cortes returned to Spain the bitter cacao drink of the Aztec culture was introduced to Europe and there it was sweetened to make it more in tune to the European tastes. It became a drink of the elite and wealthy. Within ten years, chocolate was enjoyed throughout the courts in the French aristocracy. Chocolate became known throughout the countries of Europe and in the middle of the 17th century chocolate appeared in England. There it was highly taxed continuing its reputation as a luxury to be enjoyed only by those privileged enough to afford it.
Cacao was primarily only for drinking until 1828. Chocolate was prepared as a drink by grinding up the beans into a thin paste and adding spices and sweetening and then adding something to soak up the cocoa butter, which would float to the surface.
Coenraad J. Van Houten, a Dutch chemist in that year invented a press which would release the cocoa butter from the bean, leaving the dryer cake that could be ground up into a powder similar to the fat-free cocoa powder we enjoy today.
Twenty years later European companies used the presses made by Van Houten to produce the first eating chocolate. By taking what was left after separating the cocoa powder from the butter, the industry saw that they could melt the cocoa butter and combine it with a blend of ground cacao beans and sugar, mix this into a paste and mold it. Edible chocolate was the final product. Chocolate appeared on the market in the United States around the turn of the twentieth century and now nearly one hundred years later is still in harmony with all who love it's unique, rich taste.
About the Author: Jane S. Roseen is the Owner and President of Harmony Sweets, an international gourmet chocolate shop. Harmony Sweets' mission focuses on individual consumers purchasing gourmet chocolates from around the world for their friends and relatives, as well as corporate gift giving. Gourmet chocolate gift baskets and personalized chocolates are also available.
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