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The Origin of Chocolate

by Brooke Gazer

By Brooke Gazer for The Eye Magazine

Personally, I can’t imagine a world without chocolate, but before Cortez conquered Mexico it did not exist in Europe. In fact, it was centuries later before the confection that we know today came into being. In Mexico, where chocolate originated, it was not a sweet treat, but a bitter tasting beverage, mixed with chile and sometimes with blood. Apparently when Cortez first tasted it he commented that it was, “more a drink for pigs than for humanity.”

The Ancient, Divine Beverage

Believing chocolate to have divine properties, the Mayans and Aztecs reserved it for royalty and high priests. Common people might only have partaken during sacred rituals like birth, marriage, and death. Those about to be sacrificed were often given a gourd of chocolate, tinged with the blood of previous victims, to cheer them up. Of course, some fermentation had occurred and who knows what other intoxicants were added? Apparently, this concoction lifted their melancholy mood long enough for those victims to join in the dancing, climb the steps, lie over a stone altar and permit their hearts to be ripped from their chests.

For centuries, cacao beans were used as currency in Mexico. Around 900 A.D., ten beans bought a rabbit. Cortez maintained this form of currency after the conquest, but the cost of a rabbit had risen to thirty beans. Inflation has been with us for a very long time.

The Arrival of Sugar

Many Mexicans seem almost addicted to sugar, but prior to the conquest, it was unknown in Mexico. The Spanish controlled most of the Caribbean Islands and with these islands came sugar cane.

An industrious entrepreneur brought some to Mexico and one of the world’s first fusion recipes was born. A sweet drink made with cacao and sugar became popular, quickly spreading to Europe. Once someone thought to omit the chili, this beverage really took off as dozens of chocolate houses opened on the continent.

Just Add Water

In the early 1800s, a Dutchman named Coenraad Van Houten developed a process allowing cocoa to mix more easily with water. This made it possible for people to prepare the beverage at home. Most of us enjoy this satisfying hot drink made with milk, but in Mexico it is still more commonly made with water.

The Invention of Solid Chocolate

Half a century later, Joseph Fry revolutionized the chocolate industry. This British inventor added cocoa butter and sugar to the cocoa powder, introducing the world’s first solid chocolate. Daniel Peter and Henri Nestlé of Switzerland later added condensed milk, creating milk chocolate. The race had begun to produce the best sweet treat, when another Swiss gentleman, Rudolph Lindt, invented a machine that mixed chocolate to a perfect consistency. By 1907, Milton Hershey’s factory was popping out 33 million kisses per day in eastern Pennsylvania in the U.S.

Today Fry, Nestlé, Lindt, and Hershey are still synonymous with the world’s most loved confection. The Aztecs and the Mayans, who originally developed cacao bean processing have, for the most part, been overlooked.

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