Chocolate is an abundant dessert found all around the globe, but especially in the western world. However, despite humanity's love affair with decadent cacao, many of us have no idea where chocolate comes from, how it is made, or who discovered this delicious substance. Read on to learn how the chocolate we know and love came to be!
First, let's get to the bottom of what chocolate is. We say that chocolate comes from "cocoa beans," but these beans are actually seeds from the hard, yellow, football-shaped fruit which grows on cacao trees - which like a warm climate and grow naturally near the equator. Making chocolate is a multi-step process: farmers crack the cacao pods open and then collect, ferment, and dry the seeds. After this, the seeds are roasted and ground into a paste, often called "chocolate liqueur." The paste is then mixed with sugar, sometimes milk and other ingredients, and after some final heating and cooling, the chocolate bar is born.
However, the world's favourite sweet has bitter beginnings. Around 4,000 years ago in the rainforests of Mesoamerica, the Olmec civilization stumbled upon this fruit of the gods. For thousands of years, chocolate was traditionally prepared as a bitter drink, without sugar or anything else added for sweetness - though throughout its history it has been mixed with spices and corn puree. This treat was thought to have special powers - it was said to enhance moods and invigorate energy. Chocolate's reputation as an aphrodisiac can even trace its origins back to the beliefs of these peoples.
It was consumed by many civilizations, including the Mayans and Aztecs. The Aztecs lived in drier highlands where the cacao tree couldn't grow, but they coveted it so much that they traded with the Mayans and used cocoa beans as their form of currency.
Inevitably, when the conquistadors came in the 1500s, chocolate in its drink form made the trip to Europe, where steadily gained popularity as Spaniards began to add items like sugar and vanilla to the traditional drink. In 1753, it is said that Carolus Linnaeus, the famed Swedish naturalist, was dissatisfied with the word "cocoa." He felt it didn't do this divine substance justice, and went on to coin the term "food of the gods" to describe chocolate.
The first time chocolate was introduced as actual food rather than drink was in 1847 by Fry & Sons in England. However, at this point it was still in its bitter form, and it wasn't very popular. Almost 30 years later, the renowned Swiss chocolatier Daniel Peter set about trying to balance this harsh bitter flavor and eventually stumbled upon the key: milk. Several years later, Peter teamed up with Henri Nestle to form what would become one of the world's biggest chocolate companies: Nestle.
This was the turning point in chocolate's history, and from then on it grew exponentially as a sweet sensation. Beforehand, in much of Europe as well as in the Americas, chocolate was often considered a luxury for the upper class. However, in the 1800s, alongside Nestle other recognizable companies like Hershey, Mars, and Cadbury rode the wave of popularity and set the demand for chocolate soaring to new heights.
Now, at least 3.8 million tons of cocoa beans are produced each year, and over 40 million people depend on cacao for their livelihoods. Chocolate, the bitter, mystical aphrodisiac of the Olmecs, has won over the world.
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