The origins of chocolate. A brief history of the "food of the Gods"
Have you ever wondered where chocolate comes from? Let us take you on a brief excursus of the origin of this precious ingredient, it dates back thousands of years and its story is quite fascinating..
The first mentions of chocolate date back 4,000 years, with the inhabitants of a village in Honduras making a drink out of the beans of a native tree named Xocoatl.
The Maya Civilisation used to call it "the food of the Gods". Between 250 and 900 AD, chocolate was used during sacred rituals due to its divine properties. It was so precious that they started using cacao beans as a currency too.
It's incredible that Maya prepared chocolate in a way that is very similar to the modern process. First of all, cocoa beans are harvested, fermented and dried. Then the beans are roasted and the shells removed so that the residue is ground into a paste mixed with hot water and spices. Finally, the mixture is frothed and mixed with corn and water to make gruel.
Around the 1200-1500 AD, when the Aztecs civilization conquered the Maya and dominated the region, they kept the chocolate tradition and also used cacao beans for both currency and ritual purposes.
According to the Aztec legends, the God of Vegetation, Quetzalcoatl, brought the sacred cacao tree to men and this made the other Gods so furious that they threw him out of paradise. Regardless of the origin of the cacao tree, both Maya and Aztecs preferred to consume chocolate as an unsweetened drink.
At the beginning of 16th century, the explorer Christopher Columbus landed on the island of Guanaja, close to Honduras, and the locals offered him cocoa as a gift.
A short after, in 1528, the Spanish Conquistador Hernando Cortés imported the first cocoa beans into Spain, although the recipe for hot chocolate was kept secret for about 80 years. In 1590 Spanish monks introduced the recipe for the first sweet chocolate drink with honey, vanilla and cane sugar.
By the 17th century, chocolate spread throughout Europe, believed to have nutritious, medicinal and aphrodisiac properties. Royal courts, aristocracy and nobility were enthusiastic of the drink making it a favourite at gatherings and events.
In 1659 in France, David Chaillou created chocolate cookies and cakes to delight the Louis XIV’s court. Some years later, the duke of Plessis-Praslin and his chef Lassagne produced the first “praline,” an almond coated with caramel and chocolate. In the same period, the first chocolate house opened in London.
Chocolate's demand grew so fast that the Spanish, the British, the Dutch, and the French took cacao out of Central America and started plantations in their own territories such as Sri Lanka, Venezuela, Java, Sumatra, the West Indies, and Africa. The criollo, the highest quality of cacao, became largely substituted with forastero beans, easier to grow but less precious. Nowadays only the 10% of cacao is criollo.
During 1800s, many innovations revolutionised the chocolate production.
Coenraad Van Houten invented the cocoa press, which permitted to separate cocoa solids from cocoa butter. He also introduced a way to wash the cocoa beans in an alkaline solution making it easier to mix with water. In the 1850s, Joseph Fry created the first solid chocolate by adding more cocoa butter, rather than hot water, to cocoa powder and sugar. In 1875, Daniel Peter and Henri Nestle created the first milk chocolate bar. Some years later, Rudolphe Lindt invented the conch, a machine that rotated and mixed chocolate to a perfectly smooth consistency.
During the 20th century the industrialization of chocolate production went on all over Europe and the US and chocolate became affordable for the middle-class consumers. In Europe, Belgium was a pioneer in innovation, with fast production technology and marketing techniques. At the same time, famous chocolatiers started their businesses, such as Neuhaus and Godiva in Belgium, La Maison du Chocolat and Fauchon in France, Lindt, Suchard and Sprüngli in Switzerland.
It's in recent years though that the chocolate market has grown beyond expectations and not just in the mass production, but more with niche brands and small companies focusing more on the quality, the origin of the produce, the fair working conditions of the farmers rather than the quantity and price.
It is important to support those making a difference where possible, so make sure that when you buy chocolate you spend a little time learning about the company and their mission. We certainly have and are proud to support Amedei & Sabadì as our suppliers.
Any question you might have about this, please do not hesitate to contact us at anytime. Happy to answer all your curiosities!