Some like it soft and mushy, some like it strong and dark, then there are some who prefer it nutty and chunky and finally we have the ones who love them white… I am of course talking about the insanely addictive, instinctively gluttonous, quickly cheering and the most famous euphoria shot of all… “The Chocolate!”
Chocolate is probably one Eden most have experienced and experience it over and over again. It is also one of the oldest gluttons man has discovered and created, in history of food. The little drops of heaven have a really long and interesting history. The Theobroma Cacao beans, then found in the Mesoamerica were ground up and used to make drinks similar to chocolate beverages as far back as the BC 1900s. What’s more… these beans then, had a religious importance where the native Mexican’s considered them to be gift from their God of Wisdom. In fact, the seeds had enough value that they were used as barter or some form of currency for trade purposes.
In its earlier forms, till almost the middle of the AD 1500s, chocolate was consumed only as a drink, often served bitter, either with spices, alcohol or even corn puree. The Mayans and the Aztecs called their chocolate drink ‘Xocoatll’ and this drink was recognised as an aphrodisiac even back in the day. However, how the Xocoatll became Chocolate is definitely been a matter of study for academicians for centuries. But before the word was actually formed it went through many trial names “chocalatall, “jocolatte”, “jacolatte”, and “chockelet”. Perhaps the most cited explanation is that “chocolate” comes from Nahuatl (the Aztecs language) word “chocolatl”, derived from “xocolatl” which is a mix of the words “xococ” meaning bitter and “atl” meaning drink.
The secrets of the Cacao beans remained with the Mesoamerica until as late as the 1500s AD when the Christopher Columbus and the Spanish conquered the Central and South America. Intrigued at how much the locals worshipped and valued the beans, he carried the beans back to Spain in 1523 and that’s when the age old Mesoamerican gold reached the shores of Europe.
Once it reached Spain, the beans quickly spread amongst the rich and famous, and this bitter tasting drink became a royalty. Not surprisingly, slowly but surely, the bitterness got to the Spanish and they started adding heavy doses of honey and sugar to the drink to reduce the bitterness. That’s where the thicker version of the drink gained its foothold and chocolate as we know it today was born. Chocolate moved from Spain to France when it was introduced in a royal wedding in the early 1600s and England soon welcomed this aphrodisiac in later part of the same century.
Once it reached across Europe, the plantations of Cacao Beans grew across European colonies. This gave rise to a thriving slave market, where the tedious production of the cocoa was done manually by slaves coming from various parts of the world. Due to the manual slow process, chocolate remained an expensive commodity meant only for the rich and famous. This continued till the industrial revolution in early 1800s when faster steam powered machines helped speed up the production process.
One of the most revolutionary inventions in chocolate making came around 1815 when a Dutch scientist Van Houten introduced alkaline salts which helped bring down the extreme bitterness of the beans. Later he created a process to remove about half the natural fat (what we today use as cacao butter) from chocolate liquor, which made chocolate both cheaper to produce and more consistent in quality. This innovation was the birth of modern chocolates. Milk had previously been used to reduce the bitterness of chocolate drinks. However, it was in 1870s when Daniel Peter invented milk chocolate by mixing a powdered milk developed by Henri Nestlé with the liquor. In 1879, the texture and taste of chocolate was further improved when Rudolphe Lindt invented the conching machine. And by later part of 1870, apart from Nestle and Lindt, several chocolate companies had sprouted across Europe. Cadbury was producing boxed chocolate as early as 1860s, Hersey’s chocolate were born in 1890s and innovation and invention of different forms of chocolate, made from the gift of God of Wisdom of the Aztecs started reaching every home.
However, just like every shiny diamond, these food diamonds have a rather ugly backdrop. Around 60-70% of world’s cocoa production still happens in South America, specifically Ivory Coast. It has been alleged that an estimated 90% of cocoa farms in Ivory Coast have used some form of slave labor in order to remain viable. When cocoa prices drop, farmers in West Africa sometimes cut costs by resorting to slave labour.
Having said that, it does not challenge or bring down the value of the chocolate we so take for granted. So next time you slowly unwrap your favourite chocolate from the shiny wrapper, spend a thought on the long and interesting history of this ‘today commonplace product’. Think about the journey the cacao or cocoa seeds have made, the inventions the scientists have put in place, the many variations they have created, thus, once again proving that human beings can go any lengths to satisfy their gluttony.
Disclaimer: The facts contained within this article are sourced from various textual as well as internet sources. There is no guarantee that the facts included here are 100% true… yet this is the closest history of chocolates available in written records. Any discrepancy is regretted.