The history of chocolate

Written by tristán argüelles
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The legend of the Toltec

The history of chocolate
(Jupiterimages/ Images)

Never mind about 1066 William the Conqueror, 1087 William the Second. Such things are not going to affect one's life ... but 1932 the Mars Bar and 1936 Maltesers and 1937 the Kit Kat - these dates are milestones in history and should be seared into the memory of every child in the country.

— Roald Dahl (Novelist)

The Tonalamatl, the sacred book of the Aztecs, tells how the god Quetzalcoatl was charged with delivering the cacao bean to the Toltec people. He taught them how to plant, cultivate and roast it. Then he showed them how to mix it with water to make a cold chocolate drink for the priests and nobles. Thus the legend has been passed down through the ages that the Toltecs, whose culture existed in central Mexico between 1100 BC and 800 BC, were the first to taste chocolate, then a bitter drink which was usually sweetened with honey.

The ocean voyage of chocolate and its transformation

The history of chocolate
(Hemera Technologies/ Images)

The transformation of the liquid form of chocolate, drank by ancient cultures such as the Toltecs, Mayans and Aztecs, into the type of chocolate that is now consumed across the globe began with Christopher Columbus’ discovery of the New World. Columbus was on his fourth voyage to the Americas in 1502 when he came into contact with Mayans in the Yucatan area. Some say it was during this meeting that Columbus became the first European to try chocolate. Conquistador Hernan Cortes is traditionally credited with introducing chocolate to Europe, but there is also evidence that points to fellow conquistador Bernal Diaz del Castillo having been the first to document the use of cacao beans in the production of chocolate. By the 17th Century, the tradition of drinking chocolate had taken hold in Spain. However, the traditional liquid of the “natives” of the Americas had been transformed by the Spanish into a thicker substance by the mixing in of sugar and milk. The recipe spread throughout Europe via cookbooks. In 1753, Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus categorised the cocao bean tree as Theobroma cacoa, which translates as "cacao, food of the gods".

Big changes

The history of chocolate
(George Doyle/Stockbyte/Getty Images)

Chocolate became popular with Spain’s upper classes after its arrival following the conquest of parts of Central America. The substance then spread to its other overseas colonies and to the rest of Europe. However, it was not until the 19th Century that its popularity would extend to other social classes. The crucial change came in the 1830s when the British firm Joseph Fry and Sons developed a solid eating chocolate. The same company is credited with producing the first chocolate bar in 1847. This development transformed the cacao bean into a coveted commodity. The creation of a solid bar of chocolate meant that the product could be enjoyed by social groups outside of Europe’s elite. The art of making chocolate was then perfected by various companies and chocolates of all sizes, textures, blends, flavours and fillings began appearing in shops.

The century of chocolate

The history of chocolate
(Pixland/Pixland/Getty Images)

As we have already seen, the developments that took place in the 19th Century played a crucial role in the history of chocolate. Solidification techniques and industrialisation prepared the way for the transformation of chocolate into a product of mass consumption. However, other events also contributed to the rise of chocolate’s popularity during the 19th Century. Non-cacao producing countries began to plant cacao seeds seeing an opportunity to improve their economies on the back of global demand. The most striking examples being the Ivory Coast and Ghana, two countries which went onto achieve a 70% global market share in the following century. The spread of cacao cultivation led to a decline in prices, thus fuelling the ability to produce cheaper chocolate bars and drinks. It also allowed a wider variety of flavours to be produced.

The 20th century and the fall and rise of cacao

Chocolate has gone through many changes in the 20th Century and not all of them have been positive. For example, mass produced chocolate of average quality began to be marketed to the public at the start of the century. The role of cacao was downplayed and other ingredients moved the product away from its original flavour. Luckily, towards the end of the century, specialist manufactures began to reassess the origin of chocolate and public interest grew in products with higher cacao contents. It now seems consumers have been reeducated in the role of cacao and chocolate is once again the food of the gods.

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