When we modern folks think of chocolate, we tend to think of it in its solid, sweetened form, and this is reflected in the undue emphasis which much food writing gives to solid chocolate. Yet during nine-tenths of its long history, chocolate was drunk, not eaten.
The origins of chocolate can be traced back to the ancient Maya and Aztec civilisations in Central America who first enjoyed a much prized spicy drink ‘chocolatl’, made from roasted cocoa beans. Historians do not know how long the Maya Indians of central America and the Aztecs Indians of Mexico had cultivated cacoa beans, but they had certainly done so by the time Columbus arrived in America in 1942.
The story of cocoa begins with cocoa trees which grew wild in the tropical rain forests of the Amazon basin and other tropical areas in Central and South America for thousands of years. Cacao has always been expensive. In pre-conquest times it had to be imported from tropical places in bags carried on the backs of porters.
Commercially, especially for the Aztec society, the dried nibs were used as currency. In the Maya world only the elite, merchants and warriors were permitted to enjoy chocolate. The Maya Indians and the Aztecs had recognised the value of cocoa beans both as an ingredient for their special drink and as currency for hundreds of years before cocoa was brought to Europe. The first cocoa beans were brought back to Europe by Columbus from his fourth visit to the New World. However, the many other treasures on board his galleons were far more exciting so the humble cocoa beans were neglected. It was his fellow explorer, the Spanish Conquistador Don Hernan Cortes, who first realised the commercial value of the beans. He brought cocoa beans back to Spain in 1528 and very gradually the custom of drinking chocolate spread across Europe.
The heavy import duties which had made chocolate a luxury that only the wealthy could enjoy were reduced in 1853. Chocolate and cocoa became within the reach of the wider population and a number of manufacturers of cocoa and drinking chocolate started to increase. As the popularity of chocolate grew, so the number of cocoa growing countries in the world increased. Cocoa trees need specific climatic conditions to thrive.
Chocolate has become one of the most popular flavors in the world. Gifts of chocolate molded into different shapes have become traditional on certain holidays: chocolate bunnies and eggs are popular on Easter, coins on Hanukkah, Santa Claus and other holiday symbols on Christmas, and hearts on Valentine’s Day. Chocolate is also used in cold and hot beverages, to produce chocolate milk and hot cocoa.
Pure, unsweetened chocolate contains primarily cocoa solids and cocoa butter in varying proportions. Much of the chocolate consumed today is in the form of sweet chocolate, combining chocolate with sugar. Milk chocolate is sweet chocolate that additionally contains milk powder or condensed milk. ‘White chocolate’ contains cocoa butter, sugar, and milk but no cocoa solids (and thus does not qualify to be considered true chocolate).