Aztec market traders using cacao beans to purchase maize. Section of a mural by Mexican artist Diego Rivera

The History of Chocolate

In 1759, Carolus Linnaeus, one of the giants of natural science, named the cacao tree Theobrama the ‘Food of the Gods’. The name is derived from the Greek words ‘theos’ meaning God and ‘broma’ meaning food. A highly appropriate name as the plant was considered by both the Aztec and Mayan civilisations to be a ‘gift from the gods’.

For thousands of years the cacao tree has been a highly significant plant in Mesoamerican culture. Entire books have been written about the history of cacao. If you wish to delve deeper into its fascinating and mysterious past, you might find ‘The True History of Chocolate’ by Sophie and Michael Coe, an engrossing chronicle. This page will hopefully serve as a ‘taster’ to whet your appetite.

Aztec's harvesting Cacao Pods. Diego Rivera

Aztec's harvesting Cacao Pods. Diego Rivera

The ancient Olmec Civilisation is considered to be one of the earliest major civilisations in Mexico preceding both the Mayan and Aztecs. Little is known about these mysterious people but we do know from residues found in ceramic artifacts that ‘kakaw’ was treasured and widely used by them. It was almost certainly cultivated as far back as 1900 BC and probably long before that.

Mayan and Aztec creation myths describe the story of Ixcacao, the Goddess of Cacao and Ek Chuah, the God of Commerce whom she was forced to marry. Perhaps this was when cacao became a currency? Spanish historical records relate that 4 cacao beans could buy a rabbit, 10 beans a donkey, and 100 beans a slave!  When the Aztecs conquered the Mayans, they demanded tributes in the form of cacao beans. They were clearly more precious than gold.

The Aztecs believed that the cacao tree was a gift to humans from Quetzacoat, the God of Wisdom. Not only did he teach them how to tend the plant but also how to pick the pods, roast the kernels and grind them into a fine powder to make the bitter drink they called cacahuatl; until then a fiercely guarded secret of the gods. At first only priests and royalty drank it but it quickly became available to everybody making them wise and learned. The gods became jealous of the humans’ new prosperity and learning how they had acquired the drink they waged war against the hapless Quetzacoatl who fled into exile.

Montezuma, the King of the Aztecs, reportedly drank 50 cups a day of cacahuatl from a golden goblet. In 1519, he welcomed the Spanish conquistadors with open arms believing their expedition leader, Hernan Cortez, to be the prophesied return of Quetzacoatl.

Bernal Diaz, who accompanied Cortez on the conquest of Mexico, wrote of that first encounter: "From time to time they served him [Montezuma] in cups of pure gold a certain drink made from cacao. It was said that it gave one power over women, but this I never saw. I did see them bring in more than fifty large pitchers of cacao with froth in it, and he drank some of it, the women serving with great reverence.”

Cortez learnt that the Aztecs, believing that cacao enhanced strength and endurance, plied their warriors with it. He subsequently gave it to his own troops causing Emperor Carlos V of Spain to note that "a cup of this precious drink allowed a man to walk all day long without the need of taking any other kind of food."  

Cacao eventually became a staple in the rations of the armed forces worldwide and remains so to this day

In Mexico, Cortez quickly established his own cacao plantations to be able to “grow money on trees”. In about 1529 he took the beans home to Spain and served the drink with copious amounts of sugar to hide its bitter taste. Soon it was being served steaming hot with the addition of cinnamon, vanilla and sugarcane imported from the colonies, quickly becoming popular amidst royal circles.
The Spanish aristocrats managed to keep their secret for about 100 years during which time they planted more cacao trees in their Caribbean and South American colonies. The recipe eventually escaped and the use of cacao spread throughout Europe. The Catholic Church even allowed it to be drunk during fasts. The first English chocolate house, similar to our current day coffee houses, opened in London in 1657. Cacao was even used for medicinal purposes; to cure complaints such as stomachaches as is still done in some cultures today.

The original name cachuatal become known by its modern name choclatl around 1570. The Spanish colonists adopted it from a combination of the Mayan word ‘chocol’ for hot and an Aztec word ‘atl’ meaning water. The ancient recipe for cacahuatl said to have included cornmeal and chili is unfortunately long lost.  In 1556, however, an adventurer, known to scholars as the Anonymous Conqueror, published writings that included this entry:
“These seeds which are called cacao are ground and made into powder and other small seeds are ground, and this powder is put into certain basins… and then they put water on it and mix it with a spoon. And after having mixed it very well, they change it from one basin to another, so that a foam is raised which they put in a vessel made for the purpose. And when they wish to drink it, they mix it with certain small spoons of gold or silver or wood, and drink it, and drinking it one must open one’s mouth, because being foam one must give it room to subside, and go down bit by bit.
This drink is the healthiest thing, and the greatest sustenance of anything you could drink in the world, because he who drinks a cup of this liquid, no matter how far he walks, can go a whole day without eating anything else.”

The cacao bean has been a precious commodity from time immemorial and continues to be one.  Every year approximately two million tons are traded in the global market.

The trees grow in the tropics, anywhere between 20 degrees north and 20 degrees south of the equator. They appear to have originated in the Amazon rainforests of South America and were introduced to Africa by 19th century industrialists. West Africa now produces two thirds of the world’s supply.

Three varieties of cacao beans

This variety is the easiest to grow. Over 90% of the World’s industrial cacao is of this variety.

Criollo variety. This is the finest quality cacao bean. It is more rare than other varieties because the tree doesn’t produce as many pods, is more prone to disease and is harder to grow. Cacao aficionados agree that the quality and taste are superior to all the others hence it is much sought after by fine chocolatiers.

This variety is hardier than Criollo and more resistant to disease providing a compromise between the quantity and quality of Forastero and Criollo respectively.

Little known fact about the cacao pod

Inside the cacao pod is a white pulp encasing the seeds/beans. To this day, Amazonian tribes turn this pulp into a drink that is naturally sweet and extremely refreshing. It cannot, however, be preserved which is why few of us have ever tasted it. Research has shown that it contains many of the medicinal properties of cacao itself.

Cacao’s medicinal properties are just beginning to be fully realised by modern science click here to read about the Health benefits. After centuries of sacrificing quality for quantity due to its mass production by industrial processing we are finally arriving at ingenious natural combinations producing confections that are not only delicious but also healthy and empowering.
The ancient civilisations of the Olmecs, Mayans and Aztecs would be proud of modern progress…