Cocoa trees are native to Central America. They have been growing for over 4,000 years. There were grown wild at first, but in about 600 A.D. the first cocoa plantations were established by the people of Yucatan.
For a long time chocolate was only thought of as a beverage. It wasn't until the nineteenth century that it started being eaten. The bitter chocolate beverage drank by the ancient tribes was a highly prized beverage.
Sacrifices were a common practice done in the hope of persuading the gods to protect each year's crop. Cocoa beans were so highly prized that they were used as currency by some of the ancient tribes in Central America. A rabbit cost eight beans. The Aztecs of Mexico worshipped a God named Quetzalcoatl who was known as the giver of chocolate. According to legend, Quetzalcoatl was a bearded and white-skinned man who came from the Land of Gold. He came down from his heaven to Mexico to be the priest-king and to teach the Aztecs how to paint, do silver crafts, and other arts.
He is said to have given the Aztecs their calendar and to have shown them how to grow maize. When he came from the Land of Gold he brought cocoa tree seeds with him. He showed the people how to grow the trees and how to make chocolate from the cocoa beans. Legend goes on to say that Quetzalcoatl had a soul that was pure, and the people were very happy and prosperous during his entire rule.
When he grew old he decided he needed to leave his people because he felt his "ugliness" terrified them. He did so even though he was sad to leave. Quetzalcoatl burned his palace and buried his treasures in the mountains of Mexico.
He turned his cocoa trees into mesquite. He then departed. But, before he left he promised to return once every "One Reed" which is once every fifty two years according to the calendar he had given to the Aztecs. At the end of one of the fifty-two year cycles, the white-skinned and bearded Hernan Cortes and his troops marched to Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital. The people were excited because they thought Quetzalcoatl had finally returned. They held a banquet in Cortes honor at which they served him xocoatl, which was a cold chocolate beverage that had honey, vanilla and other spices mixed in it.
The year was 1519. Montezuma II was the ruler of Mexico when Cortes arrived. It is said chocolate with honey and spices was the only thing Montezuma drank and everyone in his household drank it too. The household drank 2,000 pitchers of chocolate every day. Montezuma drank his chocolate beverage from golden goblets. Every time he emptied one of the golden goblets he would toss it into the lake outside of his palace.
Many years after the Aztec empire was gone, divers were still bringing up the golden goblets from the lake. The Aztecs thought chocolate was intoxicating. Part of the reason for that belief is probably because the Aztecs often mixed their chocolate with wine or a corn mash that had been fermented. And because they sometimes consumed so much of the chocolate, the small amount of caffeine in it may have given them a slight jolt.
Pepper and pimiento were other ingredients that were often added to the chocolate beverage before it was consumed. Today if we drink an unsweetened chocolate beverage it tastes very bitter to us. Today's cocoa beans are less bitter than the ones in ancient times so their drinks must have been very bitter indeed.
Montezuma firmly believed chocolate was an aphrodisiac. During his time, it was also thought to give a person strength and vigor, so much so that at times the beverage was reserved for consumption by the rulers and soldiers only. Cortes was impressed by the chocolate beverage.
He is the person who brought chocolate to Europe in 1528, when he sailed home to Spain after he had completed his conquest of the Aztec people. When Cortes brought chocolate to Charles V, Charles was intrigued by the taste of the beverage but thought it could use some sweetening so he added sugar to it. Both chocolate and sugar were rare at the time so the chocolate beverage Charles V created was very costly. Word about chocolate and the cocoa beans began to spread.
By the early 1600's people were traveling to Spain to taste the beverage. In 1609 the first book on chocolate was written. Chocolate then started to make its way to other parts of Europe. The first chocolate shop in London was opened in 1657.
By 1662 chocolate was being used for medicinal purposes in England. Chocolate houses started being opened all over Europe and were highly popular establishments. Towards the end of the 1600's chocolate started to appear in Germany. In 1828 a Dutch chemist named Coenraad van Houten developed a press that squeezed out approximately two-thirds of the cocoa butter from the beans, leaving a chocolate powder that was known as, and is still known as cocoa. People liked the cocoa, but weren't sure what to do with the cocoa butter.
In 1847, the English developed the first eating chocolate using the cocoa butter. It was a hard and grainy chocolate. The Swiss developed milk chocolate in 1875. Smooth and creamy chocolate fondant was developed around the same time. Jean Tobler started his own chocolate company in 1899 producing a delicious assortment of chocolate.
In 1913, chocolate covered liqueurs were first made. Because of all the demand for chocolate by this time, a need to grow more cocoa trees developed and they started being cultivated outside of their native Central American areas. Trees started being planted in the Sumatra, Timor, the Congo, the West Indies, Madagascar, Martinique and several other areas. Today chocolate is enjoyed and consumed by most people in the world. In the United States alone, each person consumes (on average), 51 pounds of chocolate every year.
Chocolate is used in beverages, candy, desserts, and even as a savory ingredient in main course dishes. It is said the world has a love affair with chocolate. If the amount eaten is any indication, it is indeed a great love.
Dorrie Ruplinger is the publisher of http://www.chocolateistheanswer.com which provides information and resources about Door County Wisconsin parks.