Chocolate. We love it, you love it and every day, millions of people enjoy it in all its delicious forms. But where does it come from and how did it get to be so popular? In this short history of chocolate, we’ll look at how a simple, rather bitter-tasting little bean was transformed into one of the best loved foods in the world.
Now, if you’re sitting comfortably, preferably with a big bag of your favourite Thorntons, we’ll begin...
Our journey starts around 4,000 years ago in the Americas. Ancient tribes like the Aztecs and Mayans revered cacao (or cocoa) beans, eating them before going into battle because they were thought to give strength. The Aztecs also believed that cacao actually came from paradise itself and whoever ate the beans would be blessed with wisdom, energy and, ahem, enhanced sexual powers.
The Aztecs are thought to have been the first people to turn the cacao beans into a more edible form. They roasted the beans, ground them into a paste and dissolved the paste in water with a few spices and chillies. It might not sound particularly yummy, but there it was, the very first drinking chocolate. They called it chocolate, which means bitter drink, and it was lapped up in sacred rituals and quaffed by elite tribesmen for the next few hundred years, until...
In the 1500s the Europeans decided to go exploring and stick their noses in. We’re all familiar with Chris Columbus, the Spanish conquistadors’ ‘discovery’ of America and just how badly that turned out for the native people. But at first the Spanish didn’t realise the potential for cacao, preferring other wonders like gold.
In 1519, the Spanish conqueror Hernando Cortez visited the court of Emperor Montezuma in Mexico, where he was presented with a golden goblet of chocolate. Realising he’d stumbled across something pretty amazing, Cortez took some cacao beans back to Spain, where monks perfected a technique for roasting and grinding them. They also had the brilliant idea of replacing the chilli with cane sugar to improve the taste.
With the Aztecs conquered, the Spanish were able to establish their own huge plantations and export large amounts of cacao back to Europe. By the 17th century, chocolate had become something of a luxury item among Europe’s aristocracy.
In the 17th century, diarist Samuel Pepys swore by chocolate’s energising properties and Napoleon carried it with him into battle to give him a quick boost. Parisians were using it to treat problems like indigestion and nervous conditions.
But with the advent of the industrial revolution and mass production in the late 18th and early 19th century, delicious chocolate, now in a solid form, began to take off in a big way.
Today, chocolate has become one of the most versatile and beloved foods in the world. And yet it’s become so much more – we have an emotional, sensual connection with chocolate that we have with few other foods. It comforts us, delights us, draws us in and gives us a taste experience unlike any other. Simply put, we love it. And the humble beans it comes from have had a heck of a journey over the past 4,000 years.