The history of chocolate
1 Chocolate is believed to date back up to four millennia. Its discovery is attributed to the Olmec people, a pre-Colombian culture that occupied the Gulf of Mexico.
2 The Mayans are closely associated with the early history of chocolate – they were the first to cultivate the plant, in around 600BC. It was brewed into a spicy, bitter drink, used primarily in religious ceremonies, and preserved for the use of the Mayan elite. ‘Cacao’ means ‘God food’ in Mayan. They may have been wrong about the apocalypse, but the Mayans were onto something.
3 The Aztecs also latched on to the value of the cacao bean, giving it the name ‘xocólatl’, from ‘xòcoc’, which means bitter, and ‘atl’, which means water. They occupied a northern region of Mexico that was of higher altitude and more arid, therefore the Aztecs couldn’t cultivate the cacao crop and relied on trade. The bean’s value to Aztec society meant it was even used as currency. In the 16th century, one bean would buy you a tamale, or 100 beans for a turkey. When the Spanish stormed the Aztec treasury in 1519 in search of gold, they found only cocoa beans.
4 Chocolate made its way from central America to Europe with the Spanish conquistadors in the 16th and 17th centuries. The Spanish continued to make the beans into a drink, adding sugar and vanilla to temper the bitter taste. While chocolate as a beverage became known across Europe, the Spanish successfully kept its origin – the beans – a secret for some time.
5 ‘Chocolate houses’, where people would socialise over a cup of the beverage, started to open across Europe. The first English chocolate house opened in London in 1657; the first German house opened in Bremen in 1673.
6 Solid chocolate, akin to the bars we know today, was created inadvertently in 1828 by Dutch chemist Johannes Van Houten, who conducted an experiment to extract the cocoa butter from the roasted ground beans. This led to the drive to make the first chocolate ‘bar’. The industrial revolution allowed for mass production, making it accessible for the first time in its history. It wasn’t until the late 19th century that milk and white varieties of chocolate came in to existence.