From the beans of the cacao tree, the Aztecs prepared a thick unsweetened drink called chocolatl. According to William Hickling’s History of the Conquest of Mexico (1838) Aztec Emperor Montezuma “took no other beverage than the chocolatl, a potation of chocolate, flavored with vanilla and spices, and so prepared as to be reduced to a froth of the consistency of honey, which gradually dissolved in the mouth and was taken cold.” Montezuma was said to have more than 50 servings of chocolatl every day to prepare himself for visits to his harem. The beans were thought to be a nourishing, fortifying aphrodisiac.
Cocoa beans were thought to have mighty and magical powers. Wisdom and strength came from eating the cocoa bean. Priests used the beans in rituals and religious ceremonies. They were used as a treatment for fever, coughs and even discomfort during pregnancy.
Cocoa beans were so valuable that the Aztecs used them as currency – 100 beans would buy a turkey or a slave, and taxes were paid in cocoa beans to Aztec emperors. Ten cocoa beans bought the services of a prostitute, and 4 cocoa beans bought a rabbit for dinner. When the Aztecs conquered tribes, they demanded tribute be paid in cocoa beans.
Although Christopher Columbus was the first European to see and taste chocolate on his fourth voyage to the new world in 1502 – it’s been reported that he didn’t like it very much – it was Spanish explorer Hernando Cortez who introduced it to Europe. Most of what we know of the history of chocolate before Cortez and Columbus is based on myth and circumstantial evidence.
In 1519, Cortez established cocoa plantations, to harvest cocoa beans for their value as currency. When he took some beans back to Spain in 1528, the Spaniards mixed them with sugar and other spices that included vanilla, nutmeg, cloves, allspice and cinnamon. The resulting beverage was more palatable and would remain Spain’s secret for nearly a century.
By the early 1600s, trade routes between Europe and the new world were well enough established that shipping quantities of cocoa beans to Europe became possible. In 1606, cocoa was introduced to Italy, still in the liquid form. The drink quickly spread to the upper class societies of Germany and Austria, but remained an expensive luxury, far too pricey for the ordinary working class European to taste.
The first evidence of chocolate in England is on a printed advertisement from 1657, announcing the availability of chocolate in London. From London it spread quickly through the rest of the country.
France became acquainted with chocolate about 1660 when Louis XIV took Spaniard Maria Therese as his bride. Maria brought with her a maid whose only duty was to make her chocolate.
The beverage made from cocoa beans became so popular that European porcelain manufacturers began making specialized pots and cups just to serve chocolate. Antique and vintage sets have become quite collectible and valuable.
Vintage postcards promoting Bendsorp’s Royal Dutch Cocoa (Amsterdam).
At the end of the 18th century, the first form of solid chocolate was invented. By 1826 solid chocolate was sold in large quantities, but it wasn’t until 1828 when a Dutch chemist patented a process make powdered cocoa powder and cocoa butter from the ground beans that the world was introduced to solid “eating chocolate.”
Chocolate bars were standard issue in soldiers’ mess kits during WWII. One version of the chocolate bar served as an emergency combat ration carried by soldiers when there was no other food available. The 2-ounce bars were made of chocolate, sugar, milk powder, cocoa fat, oat flour and vanilla. Fortified with vitamin B-1 and containing 600 calories, it provided a quick energy boost in combat.
Today, chocolate bars are still given as rations in the U.S. Army and astronauts take chocolate into space as part of their food source. And best of all, dark chocolate is now touted for its health benefits – research showed lowered blood pressure, and a raised level of antioxidants the blood of people enrolled in their study.
It’s no surprise that chocolate collectibles abound. Candy bar wrappers, candy molds, postcards with a chocolate connection, early advertising and chocolate pots are popular collecting categories. Whether you prefer to sip it, eat it or collect it, chocolate is here to stay.
The last queen of France, Marie Antoinette, had a personal chocolatier from Vienna who concocted such delicacies as chocolate mixed with powdered orchid bulbs to charmingly plump out the figure, orange blossoms to soothe frayed nerves, and milk made of almonds to support a delicate stomach.
In 1662, renowned English physician Henry Stubbe advocated that one ounce of chocolate contained more fat and nourishment than a pound of meat; he began writing medical prescriptions made from chocolate.
In 1569, Pope Pius V declared it permissible to drink a cup of cocoa through the Lenten feast. It was a common sight to see legions of maids serving chocolate to their mistresses, inadvertently interrupting the Mass.
Forgery has been a popular scam for centuries – early civilizations did it with fake cacao beans. Forgers would take empty cacao shells, fill them with earth, reassemble them and palm them off as real.
During the second Boer War, Queen Victoria was concerned about the morale of her army and navy and wanted to do something to lift their spirits. In 1899 she sent chocolate – a luxury item in those days – to all of her army and navy serving in South Africa (including Australian contingents) as a Christmas gift.
It takes 300-600 cocoa beans to make one pound of chocolate, depending on the desired cocoa content.
Less than five percent of cocoa flowers will produce fruit. The fruits of the cocoa tree are oval-shaped pods, 8-14 inches long, ranging in color from yellow or green to red or violet. The football-shaped pods grow directly from the trunk and main branches of the tree – not from stems like apples, oranges and other familiar fruits. It takes 5-6 months for the pods to grow and ripen.