The history of chocolate began in an area known as Mesoamerica, which is a historical region and cultural area that begins in the southern part of North America and extends to most of Central America, thus comprising the lands of central Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and northern Costa Rica. Fermented beverages made from chocolate date back to at least 1900 BC to 1500 BC. The Mexica, an indigenous people of the Valley of Mexico who were the rulers of the Aztec Empire, believed that cacao seeds were the gift of Quetzalcoatl, the god of wisdom, and the seeds once had so much value that they were used as a form of currency. Originally prepared only as a drink, chocolate was served as a bitter liquid, mixed with spices or corn puree. It was believed to be an aphrodisiac and to give the drinker strength. Today, such drinks are also known as ‘Chilate’ and are made by locals in the south of Mexico and the north triangle of Central America (El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras). After its arrival to Europe in the sixteenth century, sugar was added to it and it became popular throughout society, first among the ruling classes and then among the common people. However, in the twentieth century chocolate was considered essential in the rations of United States soldiers during war. The word ‘chocolate’ comes from the Classical Nahuatl word ‘xocolātl’, which is of uncertain etymology, and entered the English language via the Spanish language. Cultivation, consumption, and cultural use of cacao were extensive in Mesoamerica where the cacao tree is native. When pollinated, the seed of the cacao tree eventually forms a kind of sheath, or ear, averaging some twenty inches long, hanging from the tree trunk itself. Within the sheath are thirty to forty brownish-red almond-shaped beans embedded in a sweet viscous pulp. Whilst the beans themselves are bitter due to the alkaloids within them, the sweet pulp may have been the first element to be consumed by humans. Cacao pods grow in a wide range of colours, from pale yellow to bright green, all the way to dark purple or crimson. The skin can also vary greatly. Some are sculpted with craters or warts, whilst others are completely smooth. This wide range in type of pods is unique to the cacao in that their colour and texture does not necessarily determine the ripeness or taste of the beans inside. Evidence suggests that it may have been fermented and served as an alcoholic beverage as early as 1400 BC. But cultivation of the cacao was not an easy process, and part of this was because cacao trees in their natural environment grow to sixty feet tall or more. When the trees were grown on a plantation however, they grew to around twenty feet tall. Whilst researchers do not agree on which Mesoamerican culture first domesticated the cacao tree, the use of the fermented bean in a drink seems to have arisen in North America, and scientists have been able to confirm its presence in vessels throughout the region by evaluating the chemical footprint detectable in the micro samples of the contents that remain. Ceramic vessels with residues from the preparation of chocolate beverages have been found at archaeological sites dating back to the Early Formative (1900 to 900 BC) period. For example, one such vessel found at an Olmec archaeological site on the Gulf Coast of Veracruz, Mexico dates chocolate’s preparation by pre-Olmec peoples as early as 1750 BC. On the Pacific coast of Chiapas, Mexico, a Mokayanan archaeological site provides evidence of cacao beverages dating even earlier, to 1900 BC. However a study, published online in Nature Ecology and Evolution, suggests that cacao, the plant from which chocolate is made, was domesticated or grown by people for food around 1,500 years earlier than previously thought. In addition, the researchers found cacao was originally domesticated in South America, rather than in Central America. A professor from the department of anthropology in the University of British Columbia wrote that “This new study shows us that people in the upper reaches of the Amazon basin, extending up into the foothills of the Andes in southeastern Ecuador, where harvesting and consuming cacao that appears to be a close relative of the type of cacao later used in Mexico, and they were doing this 1,500 years earlier”. The researchers used three lines of evidence to show that the Mayo-Chinchipe culture used cacao between 5,300 and 2,100 years ago, these being the presence of starch grains specific to the cacao tree inside ceramic vessels and broken pieces of pottery, residues of theobromine, a bitter alkaloid found in the cacao tree but not its wild relatives and fragments of ancient DNA with sequences unique to the cacao tree. In fact, Nature Ecology and Evolution reported what is believed to be the earliest cacao use from approximately 5,300 years ago recovered from the Santa Ana site in southeast Ecuador. Another find of chemically traced cacao was in 1984 when a team of archaeologists in Guatemala explored the Mayan site of Río Azul, where they discovered fifteen vessels surrounding male skeletons in the royal tomb. One of these vessels was beautifully decorated and covered in various Mayan glyphs. One of these glyphs translated to ‘kaka’, also known as cacao. The inside of the vessel was lined with a dark-coloured powder, which was scraped off for further testing. When the archaeologists took this powder to the Hershey Center for Health and Nutrition to be tested, it is said they found trace amounts of theobromine in the powder, a major indicator of cacao. This cacao was dated to some time between 460 and 480 AD. Cacao powder was also found in decorated bowls and jars in the city of Puerto Escondido. Once thought to have been a scarce commodity, cacao was found in many more of these jars than once thought. However, since this powder was only found in bowls of higher quality, it led archaeologists to believe that only wealthier people could afford such bowls, and therefore the cacao. These special jars are believed to have been a centrepiece to social gatherings between people of high social status.

‘A Lady Pouring Chocolate’ by Jean-Étienne Liotard (1744).

Until the 16th century, the cacao tree was wholly unknown to Europeans. Christopher Columbus encountered the cacao bean on his fourth mission to the Americas on August 15, 1502, when he and his crew seized a large native canoe that proved to contain, amongst other goods for trade, cacao beans. His son Ferdinand commented that the natives greatly valued the beans, which he termed almonds, “for when they were brought on board ship 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.” But whilst Columbus took cacao beans with him back to Spain, it made no impact until Spanish friars introduced chocolate to the Spanish court. The Spanish conquistador, Hernán Cortés, may have been the first European to encounter chocolate when he observed it in the court of Montezuma in 1519. In 1568, Bernal Díaz, who accompanied Cortés in the conquest of the Aztec Empire, wrote of this encounter which he witnessed “From time to time, they served him (Montezuma) in cups of pure gold a certain drink made from cacao. It was said that it gave one power over women, but this I never saw. I did see them bring in more than fifty large pitchers of cacao with froth in it, and he drank some of it, the women serving with great reverence. José de Acosta, a Spanish missionary who lived in Peru and then Mexico in the later sixteenth century, described its use more generally as “Loathsome to such as are not acquainted with it, having a scum or froth that is very unpleasant taste. Yet it is a drink very much esteemed among the Indians, wherewith they feast noble men who pass through their country. The Spaniards, both men and women that are accustomed to the country are very greedy of this chocolate. They say they make diverse sorts of it, some hot, some cold, and some temperate, and put therein much of that ‘chili’; yea, they make paste thereof, the which they say is good for the stomach and against the catarrh”. After the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs, chocolate was imported to Europe. In the beginning, Spaniards would use it as a medicine to treat illnesses such as abdominal pain because it had a bitterness to it. Once sweetened, it transformed and quickly became a court favourite. It was still served as a beverage, but the addition of sugar or honey counteracted the natural bitterness. The Spaniards initially intended to recreate the original taste of the Mesoamerican chocolate by adding similar spices, but this habit had faded away by the end of the eighteenth century. At first, chocolate was largely a privilege of the rich whilst the lower class drank coffee, but once the steam engine was invented in the late 1700s, mass production became possible. Within about a hundred years, chocolate had established a foothold throughout Europe.

A 1909 Peter’s milk chocolate advertisement. It seems they were the company who produced the first successful milk chocolate bar.

The desire for chocolate created a thriving slave market, as between the early seventeenth and late nineteenth centuries the laborious and slow processing of the cacao bean was manual. Cacao plantations spread as the English, Dutch, and French colonised and planted. With the depletion of Mesoamerican workers, largely due to disease, cocoa beans production was often the work of poor wage labourers and enslaved Africans. In 1729 the first mechanical cocoa grinder was invented in Bristol, England. Walter Churchman petitioned the king of England for patent and sole use of an invention for the “expeditious, fine and clean making of chocolate by an engine” and the patent was granted by King George II to Walter Churchman for a water engine used to make chocolate. Churchman probably used water-powered edge runners for preparing cacao beans by crushing on a far larger scale than previously. The patent for a chocolate refining process was later bought in 1761 by Joseph Fry, who started the company that was to become J. S. Fry & Sons. Wind-powered and horse-drawn mills were used to speed up production, augmenting human labour. Heating the working areas of the table-mill, an innovation that emerged in France in 1732, also assisted in extraction. The Chocolaterie Lombart, created in 1760, claimed to be the first chocolate company in France. New processes that improved the production of chocolate emerged early in the Industrial Revolution. In 1815 a Dutch chemist introduced alkaline salts to chocolate, which reduced its bitterness and a few years after, in 1828, he created a press to remove about half the natural fat (cacao butter) from chocolate liquor, which made chocolate both cheaper to produce and more consistent in quality. This innovation, known as ‘Dutch cocoa’, introduced the modern era of chocolate and was instrumental in the transformation of chocolate to its solid form. In 1847 J. S. Fry & Sons learned to make chocolate mouldable by adding back melted cacao butter. Milk had sometimes been used as an addition to chocolate beverages since the mid-seventeenth century, but in 1875 Daniel Peter, a Swiss-French chocolatier who founded Peter’s Chocolate and who was also a neighbour of Henri Nestlé, invented milk chocolate by mixing in a powdered milk developed by Henri Nestlé. In 1879 the texture and taste of chocolate was further improved when Rodolphe Lindt invented the ‘conching’ machine which evenly distributes cocoa butter within chocolate. Lindt & Sprüngli AG, a Swiss-based concern with global reach, had its start in 1845 as the Sprüngli family confectionery shop in Zurich that added a solid-chocolate factory the same year the process for making solid chocolate was developed and later bought Lindt’s factory. Besides Nestlé, several chocolate companies had their start in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Cadbury was manufacturing boxed chocolates in England by 1868 and in 1893 Milton S. Hershey purchased chocolate processing equipment at the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago and soon began the career of Hershey’s chocolates with chocolate-coated caramels. Due to improvements in their machines, chocolate underwent a transformation from primarily a drink to food, and different types of chocolate began to emerge. At the same time, the price of chocolate began to drop dramatically in the 1890s and 1900s as the production of chocolate began to shift away from the New World to Asia and Africa. Therefore, chocolate could be purchased by the middle class. However, between 1900 and 1907 Cadbury’s fell into a scandal due to their reliance on West African slave plantations. Roughly two-thirds of the world’s cocoa is produced in Western Africa, with Ivory Coast being the largest source, producing a total crop of 1,448,992 tonnes. Ghana, Nigeria, and Cameroon are other West African countries among the top 5 cocoa-producing countries in the world. Like many food industry producers, individual cocoa farmers are at the mercy of volatile world markets. The price can vary from between £500 ($945) and £3,000 ($5,672) per ton in the space of just a few years. Whilst investors trading in cocoa can dump shares at will, individual cocoa farmers cannot simply ramp up production and abandon trees at anywhere near that pace. Only three to four percent of ‘cocoa futures’ contracts traded in the cocoa markets ever end up in the physical delivery of cocoa and every year, seven to nine times more cocoa is bought and sold on the exchange than exists. But chocolate is something which I think (and hope!) will always be with us.

This week… remember:
Earth without art is just “Eh”…

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