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The History of Chocolate

Although it has been a much-loved delicacy that seems to have been around forever, most of the world, and especially Europe has been slow to catch on to the wonder that is chocolate. The fermentation of cacao beans into an alcoholic beverage has been going on since at least 1400 BC, with scientific analysis of substances coating the inside of vessels used to store beverages in Mexico dating samples back to as early 1900 BC. Some written records exist that suggest it was considered the food of the rain god Kon by the Mayan people of Guatemala.

When the Aztecs, who believed that the god Quetzacoatl had been condemned for sharing chocolate with humans, had conquered Mesoamerica by 1400, conquered peoples were ordered to pay tribute to them in the form of cacao beans and so the bean itself became a form of currency. Spanish conquistadors left records noting that 100 cacao beans could be enough to buy a canoe filled with fresh water.

Where the Mayans drank their chocolate as a hot beverage, the Aztecs drank theirs cold and it was included within the rations of Aztec soldiers.

Of course, as soon as Christopher Columbus turned up in South America, it wasn’t going to take long for cacao beans to find their way back to Europe, and sure enough after his fourth voyage to the New World in 1502 he stumbled across the beans and observed that the natives obviously considered them to be of great value. Columbus brought some of the beans back with him, but even though he knew they were important, he didn’t know why. It wasn’t until 17 years later that their use would be observed when Hernan Cortes visited the court of Montezuma in 1519.

Following the conquest of the Aztecs, the Spanish started to import chocolate using it primarily as a medicine to treat abdominal pain. The beverage was bitter and didn’t really find any other uses until it was found that once you added a little sugar or honey to counteract the bitterness, you had on your hands something really rather delicious. From that point forward there was no stopping its spread in popularity and by the early 1800’s chocolate had become popular throughout most of Europe.

It’s not all good news though as with its rise in popularity over the preceding 100 years came a rise in the need for labour, as processing the cacao bean was very much a manual job. Mesoamerican labour was disappearing mainly due to the introduction of diseases into the America’s that the native population had no defence against. This, in turn, led to an increase in the use of poor wage labourers and African slaves in the numerous cacao plantations that were springing up courtesy of English, Dutch and French colonisation.

The industrial revolution of the late 18th and 19th centuries brought with it new manufacturing techniques. In 1815, a Dutch chemist called Coenraad Van Houten used alkaline salts to reduce the bitterness of the chocolate. In 1828 he created a press that was able to remove about half of the cacao butter, the natural fat that exists in chocolate liquor. This made it cheaper to make and the resulting product was more consistent. Known as Dutch cocoa this machine pressed chocolate is the forerunner to what would become the solid chocolate bar we know today.

The cacao butter that had been removed by Van Houten, didn’t go far though as in 1847 Joseph Fry learned how to mold chocolate by adding it back into the mix.

In 1875 Daniel Peter invented milk chocolate by adding powdered milk from Henri Nestle’s factory and in 1879 Rodolphe Lindt invented the conching machine which improved the texture and taste of chocolate by mixing and agitating the chocolate mixture and evenly distributing the cocoa butter within it.

A number of chocolate manufacturers started to spring up during the second half of the nineteenth century, including Nestle, Lindt and Cadbury which was producing boxes of chocolates in England as early as 1868 and Milton S. Hershey started producing chocolate in Pennsylvania, USA in the mid 1890’s.

Today, Western Africa and Ivory Coast produce about two-thirds of the World’s cocoa which goes into making the 7.2 million metric tons of chocolate consumed worldwide, with a market value of $130 Billion, every year. During the process of making all this chocolate, the manufacturers also use up about 40% of the world’s almonds and 20% of the world’s peanuts. Milk chocolate is the chocolate of choice with 71% of Americans preferring it.

There is good news and bad news associated with all this chocolate consumption. Its consumption has been linked to a longer life, but this does rather rely on people eating it in moderation, say one or two pieces per month. If you eat it three or more times per week then, unfortunately, there is a link to a shorter life. Contrary to popular belief though, eating chocolate does not cause acne.