The cocoa tree provides us with the vital cocoa bean to create the celebrated chocolate bar. We explore where it was invented, and who invented chocolate, to find out more about this indulgent treat.
The early history of chocolate
Historians believe that the history of chocolate dates back from 1900 B.C.E to 1500 B.C.E. in Southern Mexico, although the beans from the cocoa tree were used in a way that we might not recognise today. In Mesoamerica, cocoa was a food of the elite: the Mayans used cocoa as a bitter, savoury drink, spiked with spices and mixed to create a foamy topping, which was drunk at ceremonies or festivals.
However, there have been some reports that the cacao bean was enjoyed by all classes: the findings of vessels from an 8th century village – labelled Site 13 – had traces of cocoa bean in them. As this village was likely classless, ordinary people would have enjoyed the fruits of the cocoa tree.
Amongst the Aztecs, seeds from the cocoa tree were seen as a gift of Quetzalcoatl, the god of wisdom: the cocoa beans had so much value that they were used as a form of currency. Not only did the cocoa bean have monetary value: it was also purported to have spiritual and medicinal value. For those in the ancient world, the cocoa tree had many valuable qualities, yet it wasn’t until much later that it evolved into a sweet treat.
The development of chocolate
The cocoa bean wasn’t introduced to Europe until the 16th century, after the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs made it possible to export the seeds from the cocoa tree back home. Whilst it was originally a luxury to be enjoyed only by the Spanish elite, over time it spread around Europe, and made its way into the homes of ordinary civilians.
The industrial age was the main driving force behind the globalisation of chocolate – the 18th century emergence of enlightenment paved the way for many scientists to begin inventing new machines which could mass produce products. In the early 1700s a Frenchman named Doret invented a hydraulic machine to grind cocoa beans into a paste and, in1828, a Dutch chemist named Van Houten invented the cocoa press, which squeezed out cocoa butter, separating it from the cocoa powder, making it cheaper to produce.
The taste and texture of contemporary chocolate was developed in 1847, when Joseph Fry discovered that chocolate became smoother and more malleable once melted cocoa butter was added back in with the powder. Milk chocolate didn’t emerge until the late 19th century, when Daniel Peter and Henri Nestlé partnered up to introduce powdered milk to chocolate, resulting in the birth of the beloved milk chocolate.
The popularity of chocolate really took off during WW1, when chocolate was part of the US soldiers’ rations and, by 1930, there were nearly 40,000 different types of chocolate – all a far cry in both taste and texture from the bitter drink consumed thousands of years ago.
The chocolate world today
Nowadays, chocolate is sourced from all over the world, and many regulations have been put in place to ensure cocoa farmers aren’t exploited or treated unfairly. At Hotel Chocolat, we have committed ourselves to helping the communities of those who cultivate the cocoa tree, providing us with the humble cocoa bean. Our ‘Engaged Ethics’ policy ensures that we always pay our cocoa farmers fairly, and we’ve worked with communities around the world to improve their knowledge around farming.
Whilst the history of the cocoa bean is varied, we believe it should be celebrated, as it provided us with all the equipment and knowledge necessary to create quality chocolate. Although it is no longer enjoyed as a bitter drink, we’ve captured all the nuanced, intricate notes of the cocoa bean in our sustainable single-origin chocolate – try it today to sample the full flavour spectrum of chocolate.