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Chocolate: A Brief History

Chocolate: A Brief History

Chocolate is known world-wide for its enticing aroma and delectable flavor. When we hear the word chocolate, we often think of the rich taste and smooth texture of molded chocolate bars and treats. At its mere mention we can imagine the sweet fragrance of cocoa that slips into the air as the wrapper is peeled back from our favorite chocolate treats.

Chocolate makes its appearance in a wide variety of desserts, beverages, and even main courses at dinner. Today we can find it in our hot cocoas, craft beers, and coffees. Chocolate can be found in barbeque, mole, and chili sauces. Some stews and baba ghannouj contain chocolate lending to flavors in unexpected, yet remarkable, ways.

Cooking with chocolate and even the making of chocolate itself has become an art form among those dedicated to the craft. Age old secret recipes are passed down through the generations while new uses are constantly introduced by pioneering enthusiasts. All these chocolate applications and the dedicated effort behind its implementation points to the conclusion that: people love chocolate.

The love of chocolate isn't something new. It's been the case for quite some time. Though, one might ask:

Where did it all start? Where did the first chocolate come from?

What was chocolate like for those who first enjoyed its flavor?

Where it all began

From archaeological evidence we can trace the beginnings of chocolate use back almost 4,000 years in a region known as Mesoamerica. Today we know this region as Central Mexico down through Central America into Costa Rica. There, among the earliest peoples that would become the great Olmec and Mayan civilizations, chocolate was being enjoyed. Though, initially, it wasn't eaten as much as drank.

You see, cocoa paste was mixed with chili pepper, vanilla, honey, cornmeal, and water to produce a bitter drink that was highly valued for its religious importance and medical benefits. It was believed to have powerful spiritual and invigorating qualities. Even back then, chocolate was viewed to be a mood enhancer.

When the Aztec Empire conquered territories that grew cocoa trees, cocoa beans were demanded as a regular tribute or tax. Among the Aztecs, cocoa beans were commonly used as currency. Emperor Montezuma was rumored to indulge in frequent consumption of the frothy, chocolatey drink that the cocoa beans helped to create.

Chocolate Takes Europe

When the conquistadors of Spain arrived in the early Sixteenth century, in what would be modern-day Mexico, searching for silver and gold what they found was sugar cane and cocoa. The chocolate drink would soon make a welcomed appearance in Spanish courts, although, seasoned with cinnamon and sugar. The aromatic toast of the Aztec elite was now sweetly wafting about the dining halls of the Spanish aristocracy.

The wealthy upper class of Spain enjoyed drinking chocolate exclusively until the wedding of King Phillip the Third's daughter, Princess Anne, to France's King Louis the Thirteenth. Anne was not about to leave the royal beverage behind. It was apparently a hit as chocolate gained popularity within the courts of France and, eventually, throughout all corners of Europe.

French, Dutch, and English colonies back in the western hemisphere began growing ever-increasing amounts of cocoa to keep up with the European upper class' ravenous appetite for chocolate. Windmills and horses were implemented to hasten production in order to more effectively process cocoa beans to meet the fervent demand.

Solid Advancements

As the early machines of industry whirred into action, so too did the ones created for processing chocolate. In 1815, a Dutch chemist Coenraad Johannes van Houten began utilizing alkaline salts to chocolate reducing its inherent bitterness. That wouldn't be the last time van Houten would have a key role in advancing the chocolate industry.

In 1828, van Houten would revolutionize the industry by creating a press that separated half of the cocoa butter from the chocolate liquor. The press made processing chocolate faster which also made it more affordable. Van Houten's press produced chocolate that was more consistent and more solid. This dark "Dutch cocoa", as it was called, paved the way for Joseph Fry who created a method to reintroduce some of the melted cocoa butter back into the Dutch cocoa. This process allowed him to begin molding chocolate bars in 1847. Chocolate had finally taken the solid form.

Then in 1875, Daniel Peter invented creamy milk chocolate by mixing powdered milk, developed by Henri Nestle, in with the chocolate liquor. The later 19th century would see chocolate greats such as Nestle, Cadbury, Hershey, and Wilbur emerge and continue to refine their chocolate arts. They continue to this day producing a once rare and exclusive delicacy for everyone to enjoy. So, next time you're looking to indulge in something sweet, or semi-sweet, consider the treat of industrialists, kings, and emperors, 4,000 years in the making.