Reading about the history of chocolate without giving in to tingling tastebuds and a growing restlessness to hear the unwrapping of a chocolate bar, is about as difficult as not thinking of an elephant precisely when you’re told to not think of an elephant. It requires self- restraint to the point of insanity, especially when you keep thinking of that wonderfully diverse chocolate section in that little tiny kirana shop right at the end of the street, a trip that would just take about two minutes but would end with you on a totally higher utility curve (let’s take a minute to pray to the gods of globalization for allowing us mere mortals this instant ever- legal happiness). And yet, chocolate was not always meant for those of us with common descent. Although understandable that you’re already on the edge of your seat, waiting for the paragraph to end, so you may rush down and commence chocolate binging, it may be better to hold your horses and get a little history 101 on chocolate- if only for a tiny dose of delayed gratification.
Once upon a time, reserved for the Almighty and his dynamic variation of apostles, chocolate was infamous for everything but a modest beginning.
Although evidence of fermented beverages made from chocolate can be traced back to as far as 1900 BC, the earliest evidence of domestication of cacao plants can be seen only from the Mesoamerican Olmec cultures (Pre- classic period from 1001- 251 BC). Used extensively and primarily for religious and medicinal purposes, however, little is known about how these beverages were processed by the people. At the same time though, the Mayan culture (also Mesoamerican) inhabiting the same lowlands of Mexico, left behind well- documented evidence about the same. Their “bitter water” chocolaty beverages were made by roasting and grounding cacao beans into a paste that was then mixed with water, honey, and spices such as chilli peppers, poured from one cup to another till it turned into a delectable frothy brew. This ‘bitter water’ or ‘xocolatl’ forms the origin of the word and entity ‘chocolate’.
The Mesoamericans (i.e. Olmecs, Mayans and Aztecs) attributed several mystical qualities to this chocolaty beverage and sought it out for enhancing moods as well as for its aphrodisiacal properties. Considered a luxury item, chocolates and cacao were reserved for sacred ceremonies and those of “higher classes”.
As the Aztecs became the more dominant tribe across the region in about the 1400’s, their love affair with chocolate turned it into a fulcrum of their economic activities, giving rise to an extensive web of trade routes within the area. Areas under Aztec control (such as the Mayan community when they were taken over) were also expected to pay tax (or tribute) in the form of cacao beans, so as to ensure a steady supply to the Aztecs who could not cultivate these plantations within the geographical area which coincided with their seat of power.
In the 16th century, came the Spanish conquistadors, and with them entered Hernan Cortes. Apart from eventually conquering the Aztec Empire, the infamous conquistador also introduced the people back home to the wonders of the xocolatl. It was here when, for the first time, addendums such as sugar cane and cinnamon were utilised in order to sweeten the drink. From the land of the Aztecs and Mayans to that of the Spanish, chocolate held onto its elite status symbol. Viewed as an expensive import, chocolate could only be afforded by Spain’s wealthiest.
Interestingly enough, chocolate did not establish a foothold outside of Spain till the marriage between Spanish and French aristocracies in 1615. This led to a transfer of information, post which chocolate rose to fame at full speed. As the fascination with this “magical elixir” spread throughout the European aristocracies, there was a growing requirement to sustain a steady supply. Between the early 17th and late 19th centuries, the slow processing of cacao seeds was maintained by the booming slave industry and colonies of the English, Dutch and French.
As is true with most trades, processing of chocolate underwent radical transformation during the Industrial Revolution. Among the many methods that came out to accelerate the production process, the one that really stood out was the invention of the cocoa press in 1828 by Coenraad van Houten. The machine decreased costs of production and increased consistency, by squeezing out the cocoa butter from the roasted cacao beans, leaving behind dry cake that could be mixed with liquids and subsequently solidified into chocolate as we know it today. With this, finally, the food of gods was opened for mass consumption.
In the latter part of the century, Daniel Peter invented ‘milk chocolate’ by mixing powdered milk in chocolate liquor (1875), Rodolphe Lindt invented the conching machine, improving the texture and taste of the end product (1879), also several confectioneries such as Lindt & Sprungli, Nestle, Cadbury, Hershey’s set up shop.
As an English colony and with humid tropics suitable for cocoa plantations, India’s introduction to chocolate was via Cadbury India Limited (now Mondelez India Foods Private Limited) when it first demonstrated cocoa cultivation as a “viable cash crop” in 1965, subsequently opening up cultivation on a commercial scale from 1970’s. Since then, chocolate has had an exponential growth within the country, holding each of us spellbound with its addictively charming sweetness (or bitterness, if you prefer).
From its Mesoamerican inheritance to becoming one of the largest industries today, chocolate has dug for itself a permanent sweet spot amongst people of the world, eventually trickling down from the grasps of the “cool kids” to literally every kid (and adult). And now that you know the origins of the food of gods, I’d recommend you go grab a chocolate bar and treat yourself to some godly sweet pampering.
By Akshita Mathur
Akshita has completed her undergraduate degree in Economics from Symbiosis School of Economics, Pune. she loves her hot cup of chai and good food.