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The Story of Chocolate

The Theobroma Cacao tree

Chocolate literally grows on trees, appearing in its raw state as pods on trees known botanically as Theobroma cacao, which means food of the gods. This wide branching tropical evergreen has grown wild in Central America since prehistoric times. It also grows in South America, Africa and part of Asia.

The Mayan Indians of Mexico began using a form of chocolate as early as 600 a.d., at which point they worshipped the cocoa bean as an idol, a literal gift from the heavens.

The Maya thought cocoa beans had fearsome magical powers and they used them in rituals, religious ceremonies and healings by priests. They used cocoa medicinally as a treatment for fever, coughs and even discomfort during pregnancy and they were the first to invent a cocoa drink, a hot, mostly bitter beverage made up of ground cocoa pods and spices.

Cocoa Pod

Later the Aztec Indians improved upon the recipe sweetening it with vanilla and honey. They called the drink ‘xocoatl’ (pronounced chocolatl) meaning bitter water. Chocolate became so highly regarded by the Aztecs that it was used as a form of currency along with gold dust. Known as ‘the drink of Nobles’, it was prepared with meticulous care due to its ‘powerful nature’.

It was Columbus who first brought cocoa beans to Europe but as no one knew what to do with them they were dismissed in favour of other trade goods. Europeans got their first real taste of chocolate when Emperor Montezuma offered the explorer Cortez a foaming hot chocolate drink.

In 1528 Cortez returned to Spain with the equipment the Aztecs used to make chocolate drinks and the trend began to catch on. However, the powerful reputation of the drink led to beans being sequestered away in monasteries and the formula for the drink being kept secret. It was enjoyed by only the wealthiest of nobility.

Cocoa Pod with Beans

In the early 1600s chocolate finally became accessible to the common people of Europe and by the early 1700s Chocolate Houses were all the rage. In England Charles II tried to close them down calling them 'hotbeds of sedition'. In France it was described by the authorities as a ‘dangerous drug’.

The idea of mixing chocolate with milk did not come until the 18th century. The Doctor to Queen Anne invented the recipe and later sold it to the Cadbury brothers who made a fortune with new confections. Later it was a Dutch chemist who developed the modern cocoa process, inventing a hydraulic press that would produce a fine cocoa powder, and so began the era of mass produced chocolate as we know it today.