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The History of Chocolate

Manufacturing chocolate: from the cacao pod to the bar

The History of Chocolate

1. The Arrival of chocolate in Europe

Chocolate among the Aztecs

Chocolate has its origins far back in history. The first cacao plantation dates back to 600 AD, cultivated by the Mayas in Mexico; it is quite likely that they were producing it well before this. In 1200 AD, the Mayas were invaded by the Aztecs. According to an ancient legend, Quetzalcoatl (the Plumed Serpent). a venerated god, gardener of Paradise and guardian of the cacao tree, stole the tree to offer it to the Aztecs. At first they used only the mucilage (fruit pulp, milky and soft) to make an acidic drink, until someone came up with the idea to roast the beans.

And “Tchocolath” was created, spiced heavily with chili, ginger, corn flour and honey. The Aztecs attributed nourishing, fortifying and aphrodisiac properties to this drink. Considered as precious as gold, the cacao beans were offered to the gods. Their harvest was celebrated with cruel rites and human sacrifice. The beans were also used as currency. For example, around the year 1400, a rabbit was worth about 10 beans, and a beautiful slave was worth 100. In addition, cacao butter was used as a beauty product by Aztec women for its nutritive properties, especially as a balm to soothe burns.

Hernan Cortés's meeting with the Emperor Moctezuma

When Christopher Colombo reached America in 1492, believing he had arrived in the East Indies, the natives welcomed him with cocoa beans. He was not interested in that discovery, being too preoccupied by his search for a sea route to the Indies; as the story goes, he took the cocoa beans to be “goat dung” and tossed them overboard. He was thus the first European to discover the cocoa bean, thanks to the natives.

It was not until the arrival of Hernan Cortés, in 1519, on the Tabasco Coast (today’s Mexico), that the conquest of cocoa truly began.

The Aztec Emperor Moctezuma believed that these soldiers were the reincarnation of the god Quetzalcoatl, who had one day disappeared on a raft of snakes, which legend had it would return by sea. The Emperor Moctezuma then offered his kingdom to Cortés. This misunderstanding led to the fall of an immense civilisation and allowed the Spaniards to take over, at which time they discovered the region’s wealth: Cortés then understood the countless resources of this “brown gold”: Xocoatl.

The Spanish invaders adapted the recipe to their tastes, sweetening it with cane sugar, cinnamon, pepper, vanilla, musk, cloves and orange water.

2. Chocolate consumption in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries

Chocolate conquers Europe

And so, brought back to Old Europe by the conquistadores, chocolate was first consumed at the Court of Spain, under the reign of Charles V, where it seemed to perform miracles. Hernan Cortés presented this drink to his king in these terms: “A cup of this precious beverage enables man to walk a whole day without eating.” The King of Spain loved this new drink. Chocolate was drunk thick, almost syrupy, and foamy. Gradually its consumption spread, but Spain jealously guarded the secret of this new drink…and a monopoly over it.

Trade, the curiosity of travellers and royal alliances ensured that this new aristocratic and elegant drink became appreciated throughout Europe, where it was considered aphrodisiacal and invigorating.

In 1606 chocolate was introduced into Italy by the Florentine Antonio Carletti, who learned its manufacturing techniques during a stay in the East Indies.

When he married the food-loving infanta of Spain, Anne of Austria, Louis XIII introduced chocolate to the Court of France.

On May 28, 1659, Louis XIV granted to David Challiou, a queen’s officer, the exclusive privilege of producing and selling a certain chocolate composition. He had his shop on Rue de l’arbe sec in Paris. At that time, chocolate was primarily known and appreciated at the court, among the clergy and physicians.

At Versailles, chocolate became the latest fashionable beverage under the aegis of Madame de Maintenon. It was an elite drink, consumed by the rich and powerful. The gourmets of the time served it in tall cups with tops pierced by a hole for inserting the chocolate stick, in order to whip it and make it foamier: the chocolatière (chocolate pot) became the trendy item of the moment; it was customary in aristocratic salons to offer chocolate pots, and the position of “king’s chocolatier” was greatly coveted. And so the vogue for chocolate grew at Versailles under Louis XIV and increased under Louis XV.

3. Chocolate conquers the world

The chocolate trend grows

The English discovered chocolate when they conquered Jamaica in 1655, but the irony of fate ensured it was a Frenchman who opened the first chocolate shop in London in 1657, called the “Chocolate House”.

The English were thus the first to democratise a product which had been reserved for the elite up until then.

In 1680, the word “chocolate” became an accepted word and appeared in the dictionary.

During the 18th century chocolate continued its expansion through Europe and crossed the Atlantic in 1755 to land in America. Production grew in various countries like Brazil, New Guinea, Jamaica and on the African continent.

Chocolat enters the industrial era: from elite drinkto popular bar

Europe, and especially France, Switzerland, England and Spain, competed in ingeniousness to develop and perfect the manufacturing techniques. However, chocolate still remained the prerogative of an aristocratic and bourgeois elite.

It was only after 1778, with the invention of the hydraulic machine, and later with the industrial revolution, that output could be increased. Hydraulic power was used to grind the cocoa, but mixing the cocoa paste was still done manually. In 1881 the engineer Poncelet remedied that problem by developing a mixer.

The 19th century marked a turning point in the world history of chocolate. With the advent of the industrial era, chocolate left behind the aristocratic world and gradually won over all social classes; it was consumed everywhere in the world and became a product consumed every day. In 1820, the Fry company in Bristol moulded the first bar of chocolate.

Of all the industrial advances concerning chocolate, one of the most important was that of Rodolphe Lindt, in 1979; to him we owe the development of the conching process, which homogenises the paste while improving its finesse and aroma, and gives the chocolate its smoothness, its creaminess, its meltingness, and its breakability.

Master chocolatiers

Industrialisation speed up throughout the 20th century to become as we know it today. Since then, we have seen the rise of the great names in chocolate: Henri Nestlé, Antoine Menier, Charles Kohler, Philippe Suchard, Rodolphe Lindt, Auguste Poulain, Franck Mars, John Cadbury… But unfortunately this industrialisation came to the detriment of a certain quality, with – most recently – the authorisation to add vegetable fats to the composition of chocolate.

Therefore, these days we need to turn to the master chocolatiers in order to taste and savour chocolates made according to unique, authentic recipes. Working only with rigorously selected cocoas and respecting the “pure cocoa butter” label, they are the guarantors of a quality and know-how that combines traditional handcraftsmanship with contemporary techniques.


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