Chocolate hasn’t always been a sweet treat: over the past few millennia, it’s been a bitter brew, a spiced sacrificial drink, and a symbol of nobility. It’s sparked religious debate, been consumed by warriors, and farmed by slaves and children.
So how did we get from here to today? Let’s take a brief look at the history of chocolate consumption around the world.
Lee este artículo en español Breve Historia del Consumo de Chocolate en el Mundo
The Origin Myths
Coffee has Kaldi. Chocolate has the gods. In Mayan mythology, the Plumed Serpent gave cacao to humans after the gods discovered it in a mountain. Meanwhile, in Aztec mythology, it was Quetzalcoatl who gave it to humans after finding it in a mountain.
There are variations on these myths, however. The Museu de la Xocolata in Barcelona records the story of a princess whose husband charged her with protecting his land and treasure while away. When his enemies came, they beat her but she still wouldn’t reveal where his treasure was hidden. Quetzalcoatl saw this and turned her blood into the cacao tree, and that, they say, is why the fruit is bitter, as “strong as virtue”, and reddish like blood.
One thing is certain: regardless of its origin, the history of chocolate is linked with blood, death, and religion.
SEE ALSO: A Brief History of Coffee Consumption
Religion, Trade, & Warfare in Mesoamerica
Cacao was traded and consumed throughout all of ancient Mesoamerica with, most famously, the beans also being used as currency.
The drink – which was generally made out of ground and roasted cacao beans, chilli, vanilla, other spices, sometimes maize, and very rarely honey, before being frothed up – was bitter and invigorating. Forget a night-time cup of cocoa: this was a drink for warriors. And I mean that quite literally: Montezuma II, the last Aztec emperor, ruled that only warriors could drink it. (Under previous rulers, however, Aztecs would also drink it at weddings.)
The Olmecs, one of the region’s earliest civilisations, have no written history but traces of cacao have been found in the pots they left behind . Later, the Smithsonian Mag reports that Mayans used the drink as “a sacred food, sign of prestige, social centerpiece, and cultural touchstone”.
Carol Off traces the Mayan relationship between cacao, gods, and blood in Bitter Chocolate: Investigating The Dark Side of The World’s Most Seductive Sweet, explaining how gods were depicted with cacao pods and even sprinkling their own blood on the cacao harvest.
Cacao beans. Credit: Pablo Merchán Montes
Similarly, Dr Simon Martin analyses Mayan artefacts in Chocolate in Mesoamerica: A Cultural History of Cacao (2006) to underline the links between death, life, religion, and trade with chocolate.
When the Maize God was defeated by the gods of the underworld, he writes, he abandoned his body and out of that grew the cacao tree, among other plants. The leader of the gods of the underworld, who then took possession of the cacao tree, is depicted both with the tree and a trader’s pack. Later, the cacao tree was rescued from the god of the underworld and the maize god was reborn.
The way we view life and death is not necessarily the same way ancient Mayans viewed them, of course. While we associate the underworld with hell, some researchers believe ancient Mesoamerican cultures considered it a more neutral place. Yet the connection between cacao and death is undeniable.
In both Mayan and Aztec times, sacrifices were also given chocolate before they went to their deaths (Carol Off, Chloe Doutre-Roussel). In fact, according to Bee Wilson, “in Aztec ritual, cacao was a metaphor for the heart torn out in sacrifice – the seeds inside the pod were thought to be like blood spilling out of the human body. Chocolate drinks were sometimes dyed blood-red with annatto to underline the point.”
Similarly, Amanda Fiegl writes in the Smithsonian Magazine that, for the Mayans and Aztecs, cacao was tied to childbirth – a moment inextricably linked to blood, death, and fertility.
The early history of cacao consumption didn’t see chocolate as a tea-break treat or a guilty pleasure. For the Mesoamerican cultures growing, trading, and consuming this drink, it was a product with great religious and cultural significance.
Cacao beans and a chocolate bar.
Europe Experiments With Chocolate Styles
When cacao came to Europe, however, things changed. It was still a luxury product, and it occasionally sparked religious debate, but it lost much of its association with life and death.
Stephen T Beckett writes in The Science of Chocolate that, although Columbus brought some cacao beans back to Europe “as a curiosity”, it wasn’t until the 1520s that Hernán Cortés introduced the drink to Spain.
And it wasn’t until the 1600s that it spread to the rest of Europe – often through the marriage of Spanish princesses to foreign rulers. According to the Museu de la Xocolata, one French queen kept a maidservant especially trained in chocolate preparation. Vienna became famous for hot chocolate and chocolate cake, while in some places, it was served with ice cubes and snow.
European styles during this period could be roughly divided into two traditions: the Spanish or Italian style where hot chocolate was thick and syrupy (thick chocolate with churros) or the French style where it was thinner (think of your standard powdered hot chocolate).
Milk was added to the concoction, which was still in liquid form, in either the late 1600s or early 1700s (sources debate whether it was by Nicholas Sanders or Hans Sloane, but whoever it was, it appears that England’s King George II approved).
Eventually, chocolate joined coffee and tea in having dedicated drinking establishments: the first chocolate house, The Cocoa Tree, opened in England in 1654.
Religious & Social Controversies
Yet despite chocolate’s popularity among Europe’s elite, the drink still spurred debate.
According to the Museu de la Xocolata, Spanish convents were unsure whether it was food – and therefore whether it could be consumed during fasting. (Beckett says that one pope ruled that it was okay to consume since it was so bitter.)
Initially, William Gervase Clarence-Smith writes in Cocoa and Chocolate, 1765–1914, Protestants “encouraged chocolate consumption as an alternative to alcohol”. Yet as the Baroque era ended in the late 1700s, backlash began. The drink became associated with “the idle clergy and nobility of Catholic and absolutist regimes”.
During this period, there was civil unrest and upheaval across Europe, from the French Revolution to the Peasants’ War. The English Civil Wars, which saw Catholics and monarchists fighting Protestants and Parliamentarians, had ended shortly beforehand. The differences between how chocolate and coffee, or chocolate and tea, were perceived represented these social tensions.
Luxury chocolate cake.
Early Modern Americas & Asia
Meanwhile, in Latin America, chocolate consumption remained a staple of everyday life. Clarence-Smith writes about how the majority of the region consumed chocolate regularly. Unlike in Europe, he explains, it was commonly consumed, especially among poorer communities.
Chocolate was drunk up to four times a day. In Mexico, mole poblano was poultry cooked in chocolate and chilli. In Guatemala, it was part of breakfast. Venezuela drank an estimated one-quarter of its cocoa harvest every year. Lima had a guild of chocolate-makers. Many Central Americans continued to use cacao as currency.
However, unlike the coffee and tea trades, chocolate struggled to make inroads through Asia. While popular in the Philippines, Clarence-Smith writes that elsewhere it failed to convert drinkers. Tea was favoured in Central and East Asia, North Africa, and what was then Persia. Coffee was preferred in Muslim countries, including much of South and Southeast Asia.
From Courts to School Yards
Over in Europe, as the nineteenth century arrived, chocolate finally began to lose its elite reputation.
Mechanical chocolate workshops have existed since 1777, when one opened in Barcelona. Yet while chocolate was now being produced on a grander scale, the labour-intensive work it took and the high taxes across Europe still kept it a luxury product.
This all changed, however, with the cocoa press, which opened the way to large-scale processing. In 1819, Switzerland began producing large chocolate factories and then in 1828, cocoa powder was invented by Coenraad Johannes van Houten in the Netherlands. This allowed J. S. Fry & Sons in England to create the first modern-day edible chocolate bar in 1847 – which they made using steam engine technology.
Squares of dark chocolate.
Soon afterwards, Beckett writes that Henry Nestlé and Daniel Peter added condensed milk formula to create the milk chocolate that is today popular across the world.
At this point in time, chocolate was still gritty. However, in 1880, Rodolphe Lindt invented the conche, a tool to create smoother and less astringent chocolate. Conching remains a major stage in chocolate production to this day.
Companies like Mars and Hershey soon followed, and the world of commodity-grade chocolate had arrived.
Chocolate and nut brownies.
Imperialism & Slavery
Yet greater consumption levels necessitated greater production, and Europe often drew on its empires to feed its chocolate-craving citizens. Like many commodities of this period, slavery was intrinsic to the supply chain.
And over time, the chocolate consumed in Paris and London and Madrid became, not Latin American and Caribbean, but African. According to Africa Geographic, cacao came to the continent by way of São Tomé and Príncipe, an island nation off the coast of Central Africa. In 1822, when São Tomé and Príncipe was a colony of the Portuguese Empire, Brazilian João Baptista Silva introduced the crop. During the 1850s, production increased – all as a result of slave labour.
By 1908, São Tomé and Príncipe was the world’s largest cacao producer. However, this was to be a short-lived title. The British general public heard reports of slave labour on cacao farms in São Tomé and Príncipe and Cadbury was forced to look elsewhere – in this case, to Ghana.
In Chocolate Nations: Living and Dying for Chocolate in West Africa, Órla Ryan writes, “In 1895, world exports totalled 77,000 metric tonnes, with most of this cocoa coming from South America and the Caribbean. By 1925, exports reached more than 500,000 tonnes and the Gold Coast had become a leading exporter of cocoa.” Today, the West Coast remains the largest producer of cacao, responsible for 70–80% of the world’s chocolate.
Clarence-Smith tells us that “cocoa was mainly grown by slaves on estates in 1765”, with “coerced labour… fading away by 1914”. Many would disagree with the last part of that statement, pointing to continuing reports of child labour, human trafficking, and debt bondage. Moreover, there is still great poverty among cacao-producing communities in West Africa (many of which, according to Ryan, are small-holders).
Bags full of cacao beans.
The Emergence of Fine Chocolate & Cacao
Commodity-grade chocolate dominates today’s global market, yet fine chocolate and cacao is beginning to emerge. A dedicated market segment is willing to pay premium prices for high-quality chocolate that’s, in theory, more ethically produced. These consumers expect to taste the differences in origin, variety, and processing methods. They care about phrases such as “bean to bar”.
The Fine Cacao and Chocolate Institute, founded in 2015, is drawing inspiration from the specialty coffee industry in creating chocolate and cacao standards. From tasting sheets and certifications to the debate over what fine cacao is, the industry is taking steps towards a more regulated industry that prioritises sustainable quality.
Chocolate consumption has evolved a lot over the past few millennia – and no doubt will continue to change in the future.
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