Chocolate today takes many varied forms – from different colours to different formats, it can be readily found almost wherever you are in the world. It’s curious how such a small bar, with seemingly few adverse effects, can be seemingly so intoxicating. What the modern world calls chocolate, however, differs rather from what was originally created back in 1900 BC. In a brief history of chocolate we’ll look at how it has changed over time.
The first ever record or traces of chocolate can be found in the Mesoamerica region. This is a region which encompassed central Mexico to Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and northern Costa Rica – all before the Spanish colonisation in the 15th Century.
Chocolate is the fermented, roasted and ground beans of theobroma cacao tree. Originally the cacao seeds were so valuable they actually formed part of the Aztecs’ currency base.
The cacao seed was prepared as a frothy drink, mixed with spices and was actually quite bitter – a flavour you can still get from the very pure dark chocolate still found today, amongst other places in a number of chocolate tasting experiences in London.
It is interesting that the Aztecs used it for a number of reasons which can be found in modern western civilisation – an aphrodisiac and in the rations of soldiers, something that is still continued to this day (although it should be said, the two are not related!).
It would not be until 1502 that a European would encounter the cacao bean and that European was Christopher Columbus. During a trip to the Americas, his fourth at the time, he became aware of how highly the natives prized the cacao bean when he saw many stopping to recover them from a split bag. While made aware of the bean, the Spanish would not actually ‘experience’ chocolate until 1519 when Hernán Cortés drank it at court in Mexico.
Once the Spanish had completed their conquest of the Aztec civilisation chocolate became more commonplace in Spanish life, at least for those who frequented the courts and palaces. It still took the form of a drink but sugar or honey was added to give it a sweeter taste.
During the 17th century, the cacao bean was still manually processed but, by now, the English, Dutch and French were all aware of it. Plantations spread and slave labour was used to produce the bean. It still remained the preserve of the rich and would not be until the 19th Century that the general public started to be able to acquire it.
With the introduction of new steam powered mills came new processes for making chocolate – improving production efficiency and changing the texture and flavours. In 1815 a Dutch chemist, Coenraad Van Houten, introduced a way to reduce the bitterness and, by 1828, he had found a way to remove 50% of the natural fat found in the chocolate drink. This made is cheaper to produce and gave it some consistency in quality. This point is generally considered to be the birth of the modern era of chocolate.
In 1847, chocolate in a solid format was seen for the first time as back melted cacao butter was added to make chocolate mouldable. This was discovered by Joseph Fry and the industry gathered pace quickly with several notable names now appearing in history.
In 1875 Henri Nestlé and a partner invented milk chocolate and, in 1879, Rudolphe Lindt invented the conching machine – a surface scraping mixer and agitator that evenly distributes cocoa butter within chocolate.
By the turn of the century, Lindt & Sprungli AG, Nestle and Cadbury were all in existence, thanks to their involvement in an increasing growing chocolate market.
As the world has developed both technically and socially, so has the production and demand for chocolate. It now takes many different forms and with almost every conceivable flavour profile available one can only wonder where chocolate will go from here.