What Is the History of Chocolate?
I’m not really sure that most of us wonder how chocolate was discovered while we are downing our favorite chocolate truffle or eating a chocolate chip cookie, but it’s worth investigating since it has such an unusual story and such a rich history. It’s a wonder that chocolate was cultivated at all considering the complexity of growing, cultivating, and producing it. How the cacao trees ended up as a huge part of trick or treating is a fascinating story. If you were to look at a cocoa pod, you would wonder who figured out that it could be turned into a popular flavor contained in candy bars, cakes, and a 100 billion dollar industry. It is one of the world’s most popular foods.
Chocolate is best known for originating in Central America over two thousand years ago. While not all historians agree, there seems to be agreement that it was used by the Aztecs and the Mayans. Further and current evidence suggests that it may have been cultivated far earlier than once thought. Researchers report that the cocoa in early Mesoamerica was served as a bitter drink, and reserved for the wealthy. Either way, it was centuries later before chocolate was developed into the sweet confection that we are familiar with. Hundreds of years later, sugar was added to it and it became more available to the average person. The production and consumption has continued to grow as the years pass and is now considered an essential part of many holidays and a common treat all over the world.
Archeologists have been able to determine that chocolate has its origins in South and Central America by evaluating traces of powder obtained from vessels, or pieces of dishes dating back to 5,000 years ago. The powder was chemically evaluated and found to have cocoa origins. Furthermore, some of the powder was found on more ornate bowls indicating that it was the wealthy who had access to it. It was first served as a bitter drink, and the cocoa beans were considered as currency.
This article will highlight major developments throughout the years, including cultivating cacao “trees”, the use of cacao in ancient times, worldwide distribution, its introduction to North America and what may be next in chocolate history.
If you are a curious person as I am, you might wonder how things are made or how they came to be. While diamonds may be a girls’ best friend, chocolate is thought to fix everything. If you really like chocolate, you might look into growing a few trees in your backyard. I did look into it, and for most of us, it is not possible. But, over the years, through traveling, tasting, teaching, and asking questions about chocolate, I have come to have a pretty good understanding of the substance. Though I have never experienced an archeological dig, I have experienced chocolate throughout the world and look forward to learning more.
Cacao or Cocoa?
Perhaps you have come across the word cacao and wondered if it were a spelling or typing error. Neither. Actually cocoa comes from the cacao plant (more like a tree). After many steps, it is eventually turned into the chocolate that we are familiar with. Chocolate products are generally referred to as cacao until it is processed into usable familiar chocolate, and then referred to as cocoa.
Does Chocolate Grow on Trees?
The cacao tree produces pod-like fruit that resembles the shape of a football. Sometimes these pods are smooth, while other times they are bumpy. They can be greenish in color or even red and yellow and hues of purple. There are several varieties but three main varieties with accompanying characteristics. They are as big as the size of a football, or as small as eight inches. It’s not the pod itself, but the 30-40 seeds contained in the pod that eventually bring us to our favorite chocolate bar. The seeds are surrounded by a whitish gooey substance that has a pleasant taste. This pulp is sometimes used to make other products such as drinks, or used in flavorings. The seeds, located throughout the milky pulp, are fermented, roasted, and ground to produce chocolate nibs and liquor used to make a variety of chocolate products. So, yes, chocolate does grow on trees!
The original trees were thought to be very tall, and the pods difficult to access. Trees were seeded that produced a shorter tree, which made it easier to pick and cultivate the cacao pods. Today’s trees average about 20’ in height. Although you might find an occasional tree in a botanical garden, you will find the majority of cacao trees near the equator. They do well in warm, humid conditions that receive steady rainfall. They also thrive where there is some shade so they are either planted near some taller trees or near the bottom of the rainforest. Most trees are grown on small farms.
How Did Ancient Civilizations Make Chocolate From the Cacao Pods?
There are several steps required to process chocolate from the cacao beans. It’s a miracle that chocolate was even discovered. Out of necessity, previous civilizations examined every living plant for possible food, shelter, medicinal properties, and tools. Some believe that monkeys first gnawed on the plants, calling attention to the pods. There was most likely a lot of trial and error, observation, and evaluation that occurred before a usable substance was discovered. What we do know is that the chocolate beans were most likely fermented (as were many other food products), and ground into powder. Further investigation indicates that the powder was used in a bitter drink and/or mixed with other ingredients such as ground corn. This drink was available to the wealthy class, as evidenced by the remnants of dishware discovered through archeological digs. As with many other spices, cacao beans were used as a form of currency. Eventually, cacao beans made their way to Europe in the 16th century where sugar was added to it and it began to increase in popularity and be accessible to many more people.
What Is the History of Chocolate in North America?
Although chocolate as a drink was consumed in colonial America, sweet “eating chocolate” did not come onto the scene until the last half of the 1800’s. Even still, it had a long way to go before it became the smooth, melt-in-your mouth texture that we are accustomed to. The Swiss are credited with refining chocolate into a more palatable treat and Milton Hershey, out of Pennsylvania, gets the credit for following suit and being the first to produce milk chocolate in the United States. Chocolate as we know it, is actually a rather recent “invention”. No wonder our ancestors were thin! Today, the chocolate industry in the US exceeded 18 billion dollars per year.
What’s Next in Chocolate History?
New products and flavor profiles continue to vie for our attention. For instance, a few years ago, “ruby” chocolate was discovered and introduced to the world by Callebaut Chocolates. This pinkish chocolate has a “fruity” flavor with a tart aftertaste. Other trends include “vegan” chocolate, sustainable chocolate, “comfort” chocolate, and adventurous combinations. The history of chocolate continues and chances are, you will be a part of this ongoing sweet history.
About THE AUTHOR
Lori has been a Culinary Arts instructor for twenty years. She has taught in the public school setting, at the collegiate level and through adult continuing education as well as running several cooking and baking camps for children. She has participated in several cooking, cake & chocolate contests and has been well recognized. She has raised thousands of dollars for charities using the byline “Saving the World one Cupcake at a Time”. Additionally, she has had several articles regarding food published in various magazines.Read More About Lori Gilmore