Cacao'story: The History of the Cacao Bean


Long long ago, far far away, deep in the jungles of Central America and all within 10 degrees either side of the equator, cacao was being used by the Mayans, Olmecs, and Aztecs as a ritualistic and indulgent beverage. This South American concoction was seen as possessing aphrodisiac and revitalizing powers. A cold, foamy mixture of cacao paste and water was coveted and revered while the actual beans were so precious they were used as money.

"The divine drink which builds up resistance and fights fatigue. A cup of this precious drink permits man to walk for a whole day without food."
- reported by a soldier from the army of Hernando Cortes,1519

cacao pods

It's no wonder that by 1509, Cortes - while visiting his "good friend" Montezuma - decided to share the chocolate experience with Spain by taking it from it's South American origin to Europe. The first official shipment of cacao beans arrived in Seville from Veracruz, Mexico in 1585. Because Montezuma's cocoa drink was so bitter, chocolate was viewed as a medicinal and nourishing beverage that stimulated fertility and longevity. It wasn't long before Spain abandoned South America's traditional bitter drink in favor of sweetened cacao. Thus sugar was added, changing the drink from a medicine to a dessert. Spanish chocolate lovers served cacao hot and eventually added flavors such as anise seed and orange blossom water, along with almonds and hazelnuts.

"If you are not feeling well, if you have not slept, chocolate will revive you. But you have no chocolate! I think of that again and again! My dear, how will you ever manage?"
- Marquise de Sevigne (French writer and lady of fashion: Feb, 1677)

Finally, 17th century Europe caught on and began its own quest for "chocolatness". England launched chocolate houses wherein they served milk and chocolate together. The arrival of chocolate from South America came with coffee from the Middle East and tea from China but it remained the most expensive indulgence long after coffee and tea became affordable pleasures. Meanwhile, Germans preferred to dissolve their cocoa in wine, popularity spread from the court of King Louis XIV of France, and Italians were slowly warming up to the idea.

NOW WE'RE GETTING' JIGGY WIT IT Although drinking chocolate was still highly en vogue, 1674 brought about the development of solid forms of chocolate. It was nothing like the eating chocolate we have today. Something was missing. But just as well, chocolate debuted in pastilles and Spanish style puddings.

"The superiority of chocolate, both for health and nourishment, will soon give it the same preference over tea and coffee in America which it has in Spain."
- Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826)

With the industrial revolution came the invention of machinery that could efficiently grind cacao nibs into paste. Now we're really getting somewhere. American, Dr. James Baker of Massachusetts and Irishman, John Hannon, collaborated in one of the first chocolate manufacturing enterprises. Their endeavor produced cakes of the ground cacao bean paste intended for drinking chocolate.

"'Twill make old women young and fresh, create new motions of the flesh. And cause them to long for 'you know what', if they but taste of chocolate."
- James Wadworth (1768-1844; A History of the Nature and Quality of Chocolate)

opened cacao pod

New technology was rapidly applied to chocolate manufacturing. In 1828, Coenraad Van Houten developed a process that would eventually change chocolate from a beverage to a confection. By using hydraulic pressure he was able to remove just about half of the cocoa butter from ground cacao nibs. This resulted in hard cakes fondly termed "dutch cocoa". This new advancement paved the way for chocolate manufacturers Joseph Fry & Son to develop the first "eating chocolate". In 1789, Fry purchased a Watts steam engine to grind cacao but it wasn't until an experiment by the founder's great-grandson in 1847 that the idea to mix some of the melted cocoa butter back into "dutch cocoa" cakes (not to mention a bit of sugar) was tried. After pressing the pasty mixture into a mold, the resulting bar was a true winner! Eating chocolate soon became as popular as drinking chocolate.

- Homer Simpson

EXPLOSION The 20th century brought about changes Cortes and the Aztecs never imagined. Drinking chocolate took a secondary role as chocolate bars, truffles and individual filled portions became exceedingly popular. Production of chocolate over the centuries has evolved to include many steps from bean to finished product. If you're interested in doing it yourself, see our section featuring the "7 steps to making your own chocolate concoction".

"All I really need is love, but a little chocolate now and then doesn't hurt!"
- Lucy Van Pelt, "Peanuts"

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