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Owen Wood, Martin O'Malley, Gary Graves, Ruby Buiza
CBC News Online

Food of the Gods
The History of Chocolate

t's almost impossible to imagine that human beings used walk the Earth without chocolate, as if the stuff were as vital to our existence as air or water. But they did.

Thankfully, the ancient Mayan and Aztec populations of what is now Mexico, Central America and the northern part of South America discovered the "magic" cocoa beans thousands of years ago.

By 600 A.D. the Mayans had migrated to the northern part of South America where they established the first known cocoa plantations. The cocoa bean was such a valuable commodity that the Mayans used it as currency.

But the chocolate of the Mayans and Aztecs is far from the stuff we eat today.

They took cacao beans (what we call cocoa beans) from the Thebroma cacao, a tree that only grows in rain forests and tropical forests within 10 to 20 degrees latitude of the equator.

They then crushed the beans and mixed them with spices in hot water to make a bitter drink.

In fact, the word "chocolate" is said to come from the Mayan word "xocoatl" and the Aztec word "cacahautl" which mean "bitter water." But the origin could also lie in the native Mexican words choco ("foam") and atl ("water"). Sharing a frothy chocolate drink was part of a ritual in Mesoamerican marriages in the 1100s.

The people believed the beans from the Thebroma cacao tree came from Paradise. According to the legend, the god Quetzalcoatl came to Earth on a beam of the Morning Star with a cacao tree and taught the people how to make the beans into a drink thought to bring wisdom and knowledge to those who consumed it.

Thebroma cacao didn't get its name until the 1700s when Swedish naturalist Carolus Linnaeus decided calling the plant simply "cacao" or "cocoa" didn't do it justice. "Thebroma" is Greek for "food of the gods."

lthough Christopher Columbus was the first to bring cocoa beans back from the New World, they were overlooked in favour of other treasures he had found.

The real credit goes to Spanish explorer Hernando Cortez who was given xocoatl while visiting the court of Aztec king Montezuma, in what is now Mexico, around the year 1519. Montezuma is said to have consumed the Aztec brew every day – not because he wanted to boost his intellect but because of the power he believed it had over his libido. Because of this women weren't allowed to drink it.

Cortez kept chocolate a secret in Spain for almost a century, hiding it away in monasteries where the cocoa beans were processed. The country built up quite an industry, creating cocoa plantations in its overseas colonies.

One of the main reasons for the success was due to the fact that the Spanish improved the drink to suit more European tastes. They added ingredients such as sugar, vanilla and wine to take away the bitterness of the Aztec recipe.

But chocolate couldn't be kept a secret for long. By the early 1600s, it had spread throughout Europe, although limited to the rich and noble elite. And with the addition of chocolate to rolls and cakes it was, for the first time, made into food instead of just drink.

By the 1730s, the price dropped enough to become affordable to the less-than wealthy.

he 19th century brought a wave of technological innovation that made chocolate what it is today.

In 1828, Conrad van Houton of the Netherlands invented the cocoa press, enabling chocolatiers to make refined cocoa powder. The invention also dropped the cost of making chocolate and, in turn, the cost of buying it.

In 1876, Swiss chocolate maker Daniel Peter invented a way to make milk chocolate for eating. The Swiss company that took advantage of his method remains one of the world's top chocolate producers: Nestle.

Three years later, another Swiss chocolatier, Rodolphe Lindt invented the refining process called "conching," which gives chocolate its melt-in-your-mouth feel.

The first person to manufacture chocolates with fillings was also from Switzerland. Jules Sechaud did so in 1913. No wonder the Swiss eat more chocolate per capita than any other country – it's a national obsession.