We're sure every chocolate lover is at least passingly familiar with the long and tangled history of the object of our passions, but nonetheless, we felt our website would be incomplete without a little time travel.
So come with us, back to the tropical heat of prehistoric Mezoamerica around 1900 BCE where the Mokaya peoples are the first to discover the wonderful qualities locked within the strange brown and yellow pods. Little is known about the Mokaya, because had no written records, but archaeologists have found evidence of roasted and ground cocoa beverages among the ruins.
Travel around the jungle and up the river, moving forward in time as we go, and we will see the Olmec people (1500 BCE-250 BCE) not only using the rich cacao nibs to make the bitter energizing beverage introduced to Cortez by the Aztecs 2000 years later, but also the white pulp of the cacao pod was fermented into wine.
Now lets meet the neighbors. The Mayans lived side by side with the Olmec for several centuries and traded often, thus after the Olmec died out, the Mayans became the first civilization with a written history to record the use of cacao, which they called ka'kau. During the height of their civilization (250BCE – 900AD) the Mayans used chocolate in ceremonial purposes, but also grew the trees in their own gardens and incorporated chocolate into everyday life as well (which of course we think is cool because good chocolate shouldn't just be for the upper crust). The Mayan word chokola'j means “to drink chocolate together” They drank their chocolate (or chocol'ha with a ground cornmeal, annatto, chili and a little vanilla, made in special containers to increase the foam, making it not unlike a chocolatey-spicy cappuccino.
While the Mayans were able to grow cacao in their own backyards, the Aztecs were unable to cultivate the plants where they lived, and had to resort to trading for the valuable pods. Perhaps this resulted in the Aztec tendency to reserve chocolate for the male priests and kings, oh and sacrificial victims' last meals.
This is why when the pale skinned explorers began turning up around 1492 AD (yeah that guy), they were presented with gifts of the drink and the pods (used as currency and for paying tribute at the time). It has been suggested by modern scholars that the Aztec language (or N'ahuatl) word for the chocolate drink, chocolatl or xocolatl, was actually coined by Spanish explorers who took the Mayan word chocol and added the N'ahuatl word for “water”, atl.
Isabelle and Ferdinand were unimpressed, so Europe remained deprived of chocolate for another half a century before Cortez, eager to turn his plantations of brown gold into real gold, happened upon the idea of adding sugar (another new world discovery) to the chocolate drink, instantly making it a hit among the Spanish nobility. It wasn't until 1643 that the French court caught on, but in almost no time after that, chocolate was the new craze all over Europe.
The first chocolate candy (a lozenge, nothing like the creamy chocolate we know today) appeared in 1674, and the first chocolate house (like a pub for drinking chocolate) was opened in London in 1657 (by a Frenchman). In 1689, milk was finally added to the drink (in a recipe later bought by a pair of entrepreneurial brothers named Cadbury). The drink was still expensive, but no longer limited to royalty, just anyone with money.
The demand for a cheaper chocolate drink continued to increase, coinciding with the Industrial Revolution, driving people to make machines to process chocolate faster, cheaper and bigger.
In 1776, while the founding fathers were writing up a little document, a hydraulic process was invented (in France again) to grind cocoa beans into a fine paste, creating cocoa liquor in large quantities for the first time. A method was devised to separate the cocoa solids from the cocoa butter, giving the world cocoa powder.
In 1847, an under-celebrated genius came up with the clever idea of adding the removed cocoa butter into the liquid chocolate paste, creating a richly textured solid bar for the first time ever.
Over time, the continued desire for cheap, shelf-stable chocolate bars that anyone can buy has resulted in the creation of some really bad chocolate. Some early chocolate bars only contained 1-2% cocoa prior to regulation, and although there is a movement among some confectioners to bring the standards of chocolate up, it is not widely supported by the worlds largest chocolate manufacturers.
n 2007, the Chocolate Manufacturers Association in the United States, whose members include Hershey, Nestlé, and Archer Daniels Midland, lobbied the Food and Drug Administration to change the legal definition of chocolate to let them substitute partially hydrogenated vegetable oils for cocoa butter, in addition to using artificial sweeteners and milk substitutes. Currently, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not allow a product to be referred to as "chocolate" if the product contains any of these ingredients*.
The history of chocolate is over 4,000 years old. It contains beautiful myths and terrible violence, wondrous innovation and horrible exploitation. Moving forward we hope that the next chapter in the history of chocolate will include increased fair trade practices, increased food education and awareness, healthy eating, and a whole lot of happiness.
*^ "Adopt Regulations of General Applicability to all Food Standards that would Permit, within Stated Boundaries, Deviations from the Requirements of the Individual Food Standards of Identity". U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Retrieved 9 June 2007.
^ "2007P-0085 Appendix C Changes Allowed to Modernize Food Standards While Retaining The Basic Nature and Essential Characteristics of Standardized Food" (PDF). U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Retrieved 9 June 2007.