From the drink of royalty to the favourite of the masses.

“Theobroma cacao” is the cacao tree, which originally comes, like its name, from Central America. “Cacao” was in the vocabulary of the Olmec as long ago as 1000 BC.3,500 years ago they were the first to prepare the original form of drinking chocolate. Later, the Mayas and Aztecs adopted this culture.

The cacao tree was holy to them, and the privilege of drinking cocoa was reserved for the upper nobility, warriors or priests. Both peoples preferred to drink it bitter, often heavily spiced. 

Olmecs

In 1519, thanks to the conquistador Hernán Cortés’ landing off the coast of Mexico, the Spanish also came across the use of the cocoa bean. He was also the one to bring these precious beans to Europe, where this original form of drinking chocolate did not, however, enjoy any great popularity. It was not until the Spanish came across the idea of sweetening it with cane sugar that it had its great breakthrough and soon became a permanent fixture of Spanish courtly ceremony.

For more than 100 years, the Spanish held a trading monopoly on cocoa beans, with chocolate remaining the privilege of the wealthy and noble in every country. It was only when the bourgeoisie broke the rule of the monarchy in Europe in about 1850 that the era of chocolate as a fashionable aristocratic drink came to an end. 

Cocoa beans

Its final development from a chocolate drink for the few to a chocolate bar for all is thanks to the inventions of some great public figures: In 1828, Van Houten first provided a means of manufacturing cocoa powder. In 1847, Fry & Sons produced the first chocolate bar. Finally, in 1875, Daniel Peter’s milk chocolate heralded the triumph of chocolate. To manufacture it, he used powdered milk, which had been invented only a few years before by Henri Nestlé. And, thanks to the principle of conching developed by Rodolphe Lindt in 1879, every piece of chocolate today melts on your tongue.

THE OLMEC

The cocoa pioneers of America.

The history of chocolate starts in around 3000 BC with America’s first advanced civilization – the Olmec. They settled in the east of what is today Mexico and are most famous for the giant basalt heads they sculpted. 

It is today considered almost certain that the Olmec were the first to cultivate the cacao tree. Archaeologists have found artifacts proving that they grew the cacao tree alongside their main source of food: maize. Another clue is the term “cacao”, originally pronounced “cacaua”, which was already part of their vocabulary. It is thus no great leap to conclude that the Olmec not only knew the cacao tree but were also the first to produce chocolate from its beans. 

However, they were not very widespread at the time, firstly because the hard-to-cultivate cacao only grew in the wild in the American tropics, and could thus only be grown there, and secondly because the consumption of cacao beans was a privilege of the elite. 

The Olmec, with their advanced civilization, had a significant influence on the neighbouring peoples with whom, for example, they traded. Their enormous ceremonial complexes and pyramids set an example for all the cultures that followed them, such as the Mayas, Toltecs and Aztecs. It was then these peoples, especially the Mayas, who borrowed and passed on the Olmec knowledge of cocoa from about 1000 BC

 

MAYAS

The Mayan civilisation

The oldest finds from the Mayas date back to the time of around 2000 BC. At that time they already had a highly developed culture. In their heyday, about AD 250–900, when London and Paris were still villages, they were already living in cities of more than 10,000 people. They built step pyramids up to 65m in height, massive palaces, observatories and ball courts. Their culture began to decline in around AD 900. It is still not certain today whether this was due to the environment, war or religion.

Proof that the Mayas did indeed consume chocolate came from their grave goods. Depictions on receptacles show gods with cacao pods and bowls full of cocoa beans. Archaeologists have also found special receptacles for chocolate. “Chacau haa” was what the Mayas called their chocolate, the same name for hot water – hence the supposition that the Mayas preferred to drink their chocolate hot. The foam on the hot chocolate was especially popular; it was spiced with vanilla and orejuela. As sugar had not yet arrived in South America, the chocolate drink must have been relatively bitter.

Cocoa god of the Maya

To the Mayas, however, cocoa was not a staple product, but a drink reserved for the nobility. Ethnographic reports suggest that chocolate was widely enjoyed at special events such as engagement parties or wedding celebrations across all classes of society, for example in the form of the symbolic exchange of cocoa beans during courtship. The most obvious sign of how valuable cocoa was for the Mayas is that cocoa beans were even used as a means of payment.


Old Maya drawing

Furthermore, chocolate had a mystical meaning for the Mayas. Various inscriptions which have been preserved contain passages about cocoa, often describing deities who pierce their own ears with daggers and shed streams of precious blood over cacao pods. For both the Mayas and the Aztecs there was a symbolic association between chocolate and human blood, comparable, for example, with the ritual of the Last Supper in the Christian faith.

Cocoa as a means of payment and a luxury food

The greatest success story in the history of chocolate started some 4,000 years ago, with the Aztecs – though it was then a liquid, rather than a solid. Thus, when chocolate is mentioned below, it is drinking chocolate which is meant. 

The Aztecs were a wealthy, powerful people. Cocoa was one of their great riches, even though the climate of the area where they lived was not suitable for cultivating the delicate cacao tree. As the only way to get hold of cocoa beans was from free traders, this made them all the more precious, and the “dark gold” was used in many different contexts.

It was, for example, an exclusive luxury food reserved for the Aztec elite. Unlike the Mayas, the Aztecs preferred their chocolate cold, but the two peoples did have one thing in common – a preference for the cocoa foam floating on the chocolate. 

Cocoa beans were even used as a means of payment. A document from 1545 lists the prices of some goods. According to this, a good turkey hen was worth 100 fat cocoa beans or 120 shrivelled ones, whereas a turkey hen’s egg could be bought for only 3 cocoa beans.

The valuable beans were of at least equal importance as an offering to the kings and gods. In the eyes of the Aztecs, the cacao pod symbolized the heart, and chocolate symbolized blood. Aztec warriors promoted to a higher rank to honour special services were given this sacred blood.

The Aztecs were also aware of chocolate’s medicinal effect: combined with various healing herbs and spices, it was, for example, used to treat lack of appetite, weakness and feverish illnesses. Moreover, the Aztecs used cocoa butter to care for their skin and heal wounds.

Eventually, in 1512, the Aztec Empire came to an end, and along with it the cocoa cult. The Spanish occupying forces, led by Hernán Cortés, joined together with the previously suppressed Indian tribes to topple the Aztec rule.

From liquid to solid

Today, when we talk of chocolate, we mean solid chocolate bars. That’s not always been the case. For over 2,000 years, chocolate was mainly known as a drink. The native inhabitants of Central America already drank chocolate, although it tended to be bitter. At the end of the 16th century, the Spanish made the first alteration to their recipe by adding sugar. 

The next important improvement came after Dutch inventor C.J. van Houten developed a method for producing cocoa powder. This inspired the chocolate makers at Fry & Sons to take the cocoa butter removed during the process and mix it with the chocolate liquor. The result was a ductile, smooth mass which was easy to pour into a mould. The chocolate bars thus created were a huge advance in terms of quality compared with their rather dry, brittle precursors.

Chocolate today

But there was still room for improvement. 1876 saw the first steps in the rise to dominance of Swiss milk chocolate, produced by D. Peter using the powdered milk invented by H. Nestlé. In 1879 chocolate was given the soft melt-in-the-mouth effect we know today thanks to the principle of conching, invented by R. Lindt. This gave the chocolate liquor a particularly smooth consistency. Chocolate produced in this way was known as “fondant chocolate” to clearly distinguish it from chocolate produced “normally”.

CHOCOLATE PRODUCTION OVER TIME

From the campfire to the computer.

Chocolate production has always started with the cocoa beans being roasted. The native inhabitants of Central America roasted them in clay vessels over an open fire. The Spanish already used iron pans. In the 19th century, the first mechanised roasting machines were then brought in, with the beans heated over a brazier in a receptacle shaped like a drum or sphere. 

To grind the cocoa beans, the Mayas and Aztecs used the “metate”, a shallow stone bowl. Placed diagonally over a fire, this was used to grind the cocoa beans into cocoa liquor using a stone roller. It was not until the middle of the 18th century that a structure was built with table legs, allowing the beans to be ground standing upright with a kind of rolling pin. This was followed by the long conche, developed in 1879 by Rodolphe Lindt and refined into the conche as we know it today.

The old “Metate”

During the Industrial Revolution, one invention came after another: Fry & Sons was the first company to operate their cocoa processing mills using a Watt steam engine. In 1826, Swiss chocolatier Philippe Suchard invented a chocolate paste mixer, or mélangeur. 

In 1828, the Dutch chocolate maker Van Houten developed a process for pressing part of the cocoa butter out of the cocoa beans. Fry & Sons remixed this with the cocoa mass and sugar to create a particularly ductile, pourable chocolate mass.

Then came the moment that the first milk chocolate was produced: this was much improved by the addition of Henri Nestlé’s powdered milk. 

Today, most steps in the production of chocolate are fully automatic. Modern, computer-controlled conches produce better results in a shorter time. Computers monitor the entire manufacturing process, spotting and correcting the tiniest discrepancies, e.g. in the quantity of ingredients.

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