A Brief History of Chocolate

Over 2,000 years have passed since our first introduction to the seductions of chocolate. Discovered in the tropical rain forests of Central America, the cacao tree produces beans that the Mayas, and later the Aztecs, fermented, roasted, and ground into paste. They mixed this paste, which was oily and bitter, with spices and other ingredients such as water, chili peppers, and cornmeal to make a foamy beverage.

This beverage wasn’t the sweet confection we know today, nor was it available to the masses. It was a drink enjoyed by the privileged — royalty, rulers, rich merchants, and priests. The cacao beans were also used as currency and in sacred ceremonies as offerings to the gods.

In the 1500’s, the Spanish conquistadors brought cacao beans back to Spain, starting Europe’s love affair with chocolate. As with the Aztecs, it was Europe’s elite, namely royalty, who enjoyed the pleasures of chocolate. Chocolate became so desirable in France that, by decree, only members of the aristocracy were allowed to drink it. The Europeans added vanilla, sugar, cinnamon and other spices to counteract the bitterness of the chocolate paste, and introduced the molinillo, a wood stirring stick used to whip the chocolate. The beverage was now a sweet, smooth concoction.

It remained a drink only wealthier Europeans could afford until the Industrial Revolution made it easy and cheap to mass produce handmade chocolate. Various methods refined chocolate’s taste and texture, as well.

Sir Hans Sloane mixed chocolate with milk, resulting in a creamier, less heavy flavor. The invention of grinding machines and chocolate mills improved its texture, and adding salt to perfect its color and flavor made chocolate very popular. Processes such as extracting the fat from cacao beans made it possible for chocolate to take solid form, leading to today’s chocolate bar. This also made it an affordable, popular treat for the general public. In 2001, Americans consumed three billion pounds of chocolate.

Today, chocolate is available in many varieties. In addition to its incarnation as a beverage and candy bar, it is used in cakes, cookies, pies, and ice cream. Types of chocolate include dark, milk, bittersweet, semisweet and white. Chocolate is molded into shapes for celebrations such as Valentine’s Day, Easter and Christmas, and chocolate gifts are often given as a token of love.

According to Miranda Ingram, “It’s not that chocolates are a substitute for love. Love is a substitute for chocolate.”

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