Ever wonder how we learned to turn this . . .
Most historians agree that the use of cacao (kəˈkāō) started in Central America, most likely with the Mayans, although evidence of earlier usage has been found in pre-Columbian cultural artifacts from as early as 1900 B.C. Written and pictorial evidence was provided by the Mayans however, and is where we get our knowledge about how it was first used and why.
Although there is no historical evidence demonstrating who first discovered the cacao bean, you have to wonder what that day might have been like.
Mayan boy beholds the cacao pods growing on a tree at the edge of the rainforest. He gazes and wonders for days, maybe years what’s inside those pods. Then one day, a pod falls to the ground. Maybe he kicks it around for a bit. He might use it as a weapon to hunt. Or maybe he’s just curious and beats it with a stick. In any case, the pod cracks and he finds 40 brownish almond shaped beans inside. What does he do with them? Does he try to eat the beans? Does he take the pod to his leader for further evaluation? Does he crack another one just for fun?
We will probably never know the answer to these questions. But we do know that when it was discovered, the Mayans formulate a five-step process for making cacao paste and then from the paste concocted a frothy bitter drink, to which they added chili peppers and cornmeal.
This newly invented drink was offered during the sacred ceremonies of birth, marriage and death. It was revered for it’s magical and divine properties. The Mayans began to grow it deliberately in their personal gardens. Since it grew easily in the region, everyone could drink cacao, regardless of social status.
By 1400, the Aztecs had invaded many of the Mayan territories so they too discovered cacao. They required that the Mayan’s pay their taxes in cacao beans. Because the Aztecs couldn’t grow cacao trees in their homeland of what is now called Mexico City, they carried the beans in woven backpacks 900 miles to their homeland. Because it was laborious to import, cacao was reserved for rich royalty or high priests. The beans became a valuable imported resource and the Aztec began using it as currency. Aztec conquistadors left records noting, for instance, that one cacao bean could buy a tomato while 100 cacao beans could purchase a small forest rabbit.
In the sixteenth century, the Spanish conquered the Aztec civilization and cacao was imported to Spain. Spaniards still consumed it as a drink, however to counteract the bitterness, they began adding honey or cane sugar. Within one hundred years, the concoction had spread throughout Europe.
The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries brought us the industrial revolution and with that, new technologies for processing cacao beans were invented. This sped up the process and allowed for smoother and creamier textures. Until now, cacao had only been consumed as a drink. Van Houten’s invention of the chocolate press allowed cacao butter to be extracted from the beans, which left us with cocoa powder, the solid form of chocolate. It wasn’t long until chocolate connoisseurs began mixing cocoa powder back into the cacao fats, then adding sugars, to produce candy. By 1847, the chocolate bar was born and new methods and ways of producing it followed. Cadbury began marketing boxes of chocolates in England. Nestle, from Switzerland, added condensed milk to produce milk chocolate. Lindt made chocolate more blendable and smooth using the process of conching.
These innovative times made it easier to produce chocolate from the cacao beans and enabled the delicacy to be marketed to the masses. By the twentieth century, it was more affordable since its production was becoming automated. Over the twentieth century, the word chocolate expanded to include a range of treats, which incorporated more sugar and additives.
Today, chocolate is available to most everyone on the planet and has become one of the worlds most popular food types used in a variety of candies, cookies, cakes and other sweet treats.
That’s quite a history! The transformation from cacao to modern day chocolate is an interesting one and we at Chocology are happy to be a part of its evolution.
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