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Some Tasty Chocolate History
The story begins about two millennia ago in the tropical rainforests of America. Although the cacao tree had been around for some time, the natives had never used the beans inside the pod for food. Discovering that the seeds could be processed and used as a drink quickly caught on with these primitive people. The first people known to make chocolate from cocoa beans were the ancient cultures of Central America and Mexico. They ground the beans and mixed them with various seasonings and spices, then hand-whipped the drink until it was both frothy and spicy.
The Olmec Indians are believed to be the first culture to domesticate beans between 1500 and 400 BC. Between 250 and 900 BC, bean consumption was limited to the elite class of the Mayan culture. Throughout these years, the drink was consumed unsweetened. Apparently, the Mayans valued the beans so highly that they planted them in their personal gardens for easy access.
Around AD 600, the Maya migrated to the northern regions of South America and established the earliest recorded plantations of cacao trees in the Yucatan. They used the brew at betrothal and marriage ceremonies.
When the Aztec culture was able to escape parts of the beans and learn to make a drink from them, they used them for medicinal purposes and ceremonies such as weddings and religious rites. They believed that the beans were a gift from their gods. They are also the first known culture to tax beans. The drink they made was called “xocalatl”, which translates to warm or bitter drink. At this time, beans also began to be used as currency in Mesoamerican cultures. They were not used to make chocolate until they were too worn out to be used as currency.
The first European to learn about chocolate was Christopher Columbus. He encountered a huge Mayan trading canoe filled with valuable beans. When the Spanish invaded Yucatan in 1517 and Mexico in 1519, they quickly realized the monetary value of the precious beans. However, they did not like the warm, bitter and unsweetened drink they received from the locals. It took some time, but they learned to adapt their taste buds to the drink and began to enjoy it.
The most popular story about the introduction of chocolate to Europe is the one that credits Dominican friars with leading a delegation of Mayan nobles to the court of Prince Philip of Spain. As one of the many gifts the nobles gave the prince, they gave him several jars of already processed cocoa, ready to drink. However, the Spanish did not share this beloved drink with the rest of Europe for almost a century!
Sometime in the 16th century, the Spanish began adding flavorings such as vanilla and sugar cane to chocolate drinks. This is how sweetened chocolate was invented. And recorded history shows that the drink grew in popularity to such an extent that in 1582 regular shipments began from Veracruz, Mexico to Seville, Spain.
The accounts are not entirely clear about how chocolate was introduced to the rest of Europe. It is thought that it was most likely spread through monasteries and convents that were associated with Latin America. Members of the Jesuit Society were the main consumers of this drink and have also become cocoa traders. A French cardinal popularized the drink in France, and when Louis XIV married Maria Theresa of Spain in 1615, he started a practice as a chocolate lover that spread like wildfire among the French aristocracy.
The English were introduced to the cocoa bean through British pirates who targeted Spanish ships in the latter half of the 1500s. They saw no use for the strange-looking cargo and even burned several shipments before anyone found out what the beans were for. It took about a hundred years for chocolate to make its mark on British history. If it did happen, though, it wasn’t just for the aristocracy. Anyone in England who could afford it could. Although it was more expensive than coffee, it was cheaper than tea. “Chocolate houses” began to spring up, the first being opened by a Frenchman in 1657. At the time, chocolate cost 10-15 shillings per pound. So it was quite expensive.
In the 16th and 17th centuries, demand for chocolate grew to such an extent that cocoa plantations had enslaved Mesoamericans to plant, grow, harvest, and process the cocoa beans. By the end of the 17th century, only ten percent of India’s native population had survived. It was then that slaves were transported from Africa to Ecuador, Venezuela, Paraguay and Brazil. For over two centuries, enslaved people and wage laborers were used to meet the all-consuming demand for cocoa.
By 1730, the price of cocoa had fallen to about $3 a pound. This made it more affordable to anyone but the very wealthy. In 1732, a French inventor developed a table grinder for grinding chocolate. This simplified the process and allowed larger quantities to be churned out at lower costs. So production naturally increased.
In 1765, Irish chocolatier John Hanan imported cocoa beans from the West Indies to the American colonies of Massachusetts. He collaborated with Dr. James Baker. They built the first chocolate mill in the colonies, and by 1780 that mill was producing the famous Baker’s chocolate, which is still widely used today.
Another revolution in manufacturing occurred in 1795 when Dr. Joseph Fry of Bristol, England, used a steam engine to power a grinding wheel used to make chocolate. This greatly accelerated the production process.
The man considered to be the pioneer of Swiss chocolate production, Francois Callier, opened the first Swiss chocolate factory in 1819. And in 1828 Dutchman Conrad Van Houton invented the cocoa press. His invention contributed more to lowering the price of chocolate and improving its quality by squeezing out the cocoa butter, making the consistency of the drink more uniform. Mr. Van Houton patented his invention in Amsterdam and his process became known as “Dutch.”
In 1847, Joseph Fry & Son made another innovation when they discovered a way to add some of the cocoa butter back to Dutch chocolate, add sugar and make a paste that could be shaped into a bar and…Voila! the modern chocolate bar was born. Dr. Fry and his son teamed up with Cadbury Brothers to display edible chocolates at an exhibition in Birmingham, England in 1849. In 1851, Americans got their first taste of bonbons, chocolate creams, caramels, and “boiled sweets” (hard candies). at the Prince Albert Exhibition in London.
In 1861, Richard Cadbury created the first known heart-shaped box for Valentine’s Day, and seven years later, in 1868, John Cadbury produced and marketed the first boxes of chocolate candies. In 1876, Daniel Peter of Switzerland introduced milk chocolate as a drink, a project he worked on for eight years before perfecting it. In 1879, he teamed up with Henri Nestlé, founded the Nestlé Company, and they gave us a chocolate mix that only had to be added with water and sugar.
Also in 1879, Rodolphe Lindt of Bern, Switzerland invented a new machine that heated and rolled chocolate to perfect it. The process was called “conching”. After 72 hours of “tempering” the chocolate and adding cocoa butter, the product was much smoother and creamier and could be molded into tastier treats. Lindt Chocolates are still widely known and recognized around the world today.
Here’s another little piece of chocolate history to chew on… The chocolatier credited with bringing mass production to the chocolate industry is Milton Hershey of Pennsylvania, United States. Mr. Hershey was nicknamed the “Henry Ford of chocolatiers.”
Although slavery was abolished in 1888, the use of slave labor continued into the early 1900s. In 1910, William Cadbury became a leader in the boycott of plantations that abused and mistreated their workers. He invited other English and American chocolatiers to join his campaign. In the same year, the US Congress imposed an official ban on all cocoa that was found to be produced by slave labor. These efforts improved plantation conditions. In the same year that chocolatiers came together in formal protest against the cruelty of cocoa plantations, Canadian Arthur Garong introduced the first nickel chocolate bar.
In 1913, Swiss chocolatier Jules Sechaud provided the chocolate industry with a machine process for filling hollowed chocolate shells. Then, in 1926, Belgian chocolatier Joseph Draps opened the doors of Godiva Chocolates.
Today, most cacao is grown and harvested by hand. But gone are the days when cruel plantation owners used slave labor to satisfy the world’s need for chocolate. Today’s cocoa is produced by independent growers or cooperative groups around the world.
Although there are a few companies that produce handmade chocolates, the majority of production is done by machine. It is more cost effective and allows companies to sell their product cheaper than those who make their products by hand.
Even today there are cultures that believe chocolate is used as currency and for medicinal and religious purposes. In fact, cocoa beans contain theobromine, a chemical used to treat high blood pressure because it dilates blood vessels. That is why it is used even in modern medicine. And cocoa butter is used for skin care in some beauty products, such as lotions and creams. It is well known for its rich formula that moisturizes and softens. It is also good for treating sunburn. In addition, cocoa butter is used to coat the pills so they go down the throat more easily.
Here it is…a little history, some fun facts…are you craving chocolate? I am! So we’ll end it here. Go grab some chocolate, relax and appreciate the history that brought us this delightful treat.
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