The origin of…Chocolate

“All you need is love. But a little chocolate now and then doesn’t hurt.”
Charles M. Schulz


Chocolate has a long history and can be dated back to 1100 to 1400 BC. That is the date of the earliest record of the use of cacao beans, which is found in Puerto Escondido, Honduras. The Olmecs, the first major civilization in Mesoamerica, used the sweet, white pulp around the beans to make an alcoholic drink. As of the 6th century AD the Mayans cultivated cacao trees and used the seeds to make a hot, frothy, bitter drink. It was served in royal and religious ceremonies and cocoa beans were offered to the gods as they symbolized life and fertility.  Beans were considered so valuable that they were used as currency.
When the Aztecs had conquered large parts of Mesoamerica (15th century), they incorporated cacao into their culture. They continued using it as a currency and drank it the same way the Mayas did, although they sometimes drank it cold and added vanilla, chili peppers and some other spices.
An Aztec legend tells the story of how cacao seeds were brought to earth. The god Quetzalcoatl descended from Paradise on a beam of the Morning Star. With him he brought a cacao tree and taught humans how to roast and grind the beans. Quetzalcoatl was thrown out of Paradise for giving the sacred drink to humans. Other gods related to cacao were Tonacatecutli, the goddess of food, and Calchiuhtlucue, the goddess of water. They were guardian goddesses of cocoa and each year human sacrifices were performed for the goddesses. The person being sacrificed was given cocoa at his last meal.

In 1502 Christopher Columbus was the first European to come in contact with coca beans, but it´s Hernán Cortés, a Spanish conquistador, who was welcomed by the Aztec ruler Montezuma (the then ruler of Tenochtitlan, the capital, where Mexico City is located now) with a banquet where they drank chocolate. Montezuma loved the drink, he reportedly drank 50 cups of chocolate a day, but the Spanish didn´t like it; it was too bitter in their eyes. So when they introduced it in Spain they decided to add sugar. It became a success at the royal courts (it was only available for the rich) and spread throughout Europe.  In England everybody who could afford it could drink chocolate and the first chocolate house opened in London in 1657. Chocolate was not only popular because of its taste, it was also believed to have medicinal, nutritious and aphrodisiac properties.
Chocolate became so popular that the Spanish started growing cacao beans on plantations in Mesoamerica. Soon other European countries followed with their own plantations in their colonies. Thousands of people, mostly Africans, were enslaved to work on the plantations. As supply increased, the price of chocolate went down and more people could buy chocolate.

In 1828 the Dutchman Casparus van Houten invented a way to extract the fat from the cacao beans and make powder and butter. Later his son, Coenraad, developed the method of treating chocolate with alkali to remove the bitter taste. This chocolate became known as Dutch cocoa and was the predecessor of solid chocolate. In 1847 Joseph Fry, an Englishman, added melted cacao butter to the Dutch cocoa and created the first chocolate bar.  The 19th century saw some other inventions, like the milk chocolate bar in 1875 by Daniel Peter and Henri Nestle and conching (a process of heating and grinding the chocolate so it becomes smooth) by Rodolphe Lindt.
In the 20th century chocolate became more and more popular (the chocolate market today is a 35 billion dollar industry) and more sugar and other ingredients were added, leaving end products that have more additives that actual cacao.  But a countertrend has sprung up during the past years with an increasing interest in high-quality, handmade chocolates and sustainable and slave-free farming and harvesting methods.  There is also a tendency towards dark chocolate, which needs less added sugar and has more antioxidants. Moreover, the higher the cacao percentage, the richer the taste, so you will eat less (at least in theory…).

More on fair-trade and ethical chocolate:”>”>

The English chocolate, Dutch chocolade and Italian cioccolato come from Spanish chocolate, which in turn possibly comes from Nahuatl (Aztec) xocolātl, from xococ, bitter, and ātl, water. Another possibility is that is derived from cacahuatl (cacao water), but since caca in Spanish means poop the Spanish preferred to use the Yucatec Maya word chocol (hot) combined with the Nahuatl word ātl. Another theory suggests it comes from Maya chocol haa (hot water).

Chocolate in other languages:
Dutch: chocolade
Spanish: el chocolate
Italian: il cioccolato


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