Ever since man first started cultivating this delicious treat, chocolate has continually evoked passions in us. In olden days, Indians, like the Mayans and Aztecs, would use the beans as actual currency. Today, we approach it the way we approach few other sweetened treats in life, for a number of very good reasons. The history of chocolate is as rich as its texture and flavor, as a matter of fact.
It began with the ancient Mayans, who referred to chocolate as the food of the gods. The word “chocolate” is derived from the Nahuatl (language of the Aztecs) word “xocolatl” (pronounced choco-la’tl) which literally translates to “bitter water”. Both the Aztecs and the Mayans were known to actively cultivate cacao (ka-KOW) beans for human consumption.
The chocolate of the Aztecs and Mayans was, of course, very different from the chocolate we enjoy these days. The cacao beans were instead fermented, then dried in pots before being ground to a flour-like consistency, not completely unlike our cacao-mixes today that in some parts of the world are used for adding to milk. The cacao was then mixed with water and spices to form a drink that, absent the sugar additives of today, was indeed quite true to its name of bitter water. In addition; chili pepper, vanilla, honey, allspice and other native seasonings were often added to the drink recipes, depending on local culture and circumstance.
Christopher Columbus was reportedly the first to bring cacao beans to Europe (around 1504) as an example of the currency used in the New World. It was Hernan Cortez, however, that recognized the value of chocolate as a beverage. He sent the beans back to Europe in 1528, along with a recipe for a beverage which “permits a man to walk an entire day without food” – something which surely piqued the interest of more than one soul at the European courts.
At first, the King (Charles V) and Queen of Spain were the only ones who enjoyed the bitter drink. A Spanish duchess dramatically improved the flavor by adding sugar to the recipe and its popularity among Spanish nobles soared. Soon, the would-be chocolatiers were experimenting with additional spices, such as cinnamon and mace, in an effort to further improve the flavor. And the road to chocolate as we know it today had, albeit slowly, had begun.
The chocolate drink slowly spread throughout Europe and by the 1650’s it had caught on in a number of nations, England being one of the primary ones. Although the beverage was soon introduced to the Colonies in America, it was still very much a luxury item reserved primarily for the aristocracy. The road bringing cacao beans back to Europe, as they could not be cultivated here, was arduous.