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A Brief History of Chocolate

by Bethany (follow)
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Bonnat Hacienda El Rosario 75% Dark Chocolate - Lee McCoy, Flickr

Chocolate is undoubtedly the food of the heart. Not only does it taste great, it also looks amazing, and makes us feel good. Perfection, every step of the way.

But what are the different kinds of chocolate? What do cacao percentages mean, and how does this affect the quality and taste? Can you make your own chocolate at home? Let’s have a closer look at this beloved dessert and see if we can’t uncover some of its secrets.

A Brief History of Chocolate

Chocolate hearkens back to Mesoamerica where the Theobroma cacao tree originates. There is contention as to which culture within the area first began using the cacao beans; traces of early chocolate drinks can be dated as far back as 1900 BC in Mokaya, in Mexico.

A possible Maya lord forbids a person to touch a container of chocolate.

Records have been found about the drink of the gods in the Mayan culture, where they believed that the gods shed their blood on the cacao pods during production. The Aztecs named the seeds after Quetzalcoatl, the God of Wisdom, and used it to make a beverage known as xocolātl (‘bitter water’). The cacao beans were crushed and ground into a paste, and then mixed with water and other spices to create a beverage used as an aphrodisiac, and as rations for Aztec soldiers to fight fatigue. The beans themselves were considered a luxury, imported from outside the Aztec Empire, and were used to barter for goods.

European contact began with Christopher Columbus, who brought cacao beans back to Spain, but it was Hernán Cortés who first encountered the chocolate beverage in the court of Montezuma in 1519. Chocolate was imported to Europe after the Spanish conquered the Aztecs, and was a favourite in the Spanish court.

Fresh Cacao from São Tomé & Príncipe - Everjean, Flickr

Chocolate production flourished and thrived thereafter, and as the process became more efficient, the texture and flavour changed as well. At first, the Spanish added sugar or honey to balance the bitterness of the beans, until the addition of alkaline salts by Coenraad Van Houten, a Dutch chemist in the 19th Century. He also introduced a press to extract cacao butter from the beans, improving consistency and productivity, and chocolate took on solid form for the first time. And thus the first chocolate bar was born.

Over the next century, the production and development of chocolate would change in leaps and bounds. Melted cacao butter was reintroduced into the mixture to make chocolate mouldable; milk powder was added to create milk chocolate; and the conching process was invented to ensure consistency in texture and flavour. Conching involves grinding and kneading the ingredients — cacao nibs and the like — into a paste, and then agitating and aerated it until the desired texture and flavour is achieved.

Pretty soon, chocolate was being sold commercially by companies such as Lindt, Nestle, Cadbury, and Hershey’s. The word ‘chocolate’ became synonymous with any product made with cacao beans, including desserts and treats that contained very little of the cacao itself.

So now that we know a bit more about where chocolate came from, and how it developed, the next step would be to talk about how it is made. Tune in next time, for Chocolate Production.

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