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The History of Chocolate: Ancient, Delicious & Divine

The History of Chocolate: Ancient, Delicious & Divine

By Robert Matsumura, Contributing Writer

When we hear the word chocolate, most of us picture a bar, ice cream, baked goods, or a confection of some type. Typically, we think of eating chocolate, not drinking it, and a sweet taste is usually associated with it rather than a savory one. However, for approximately ninety percent of chocolate’s extensive history, it was primarily a beverage, and sugar didn’t figure into the equation at all.

While the terminology can be a bit puzzling, most contemporary experts refer to “cacao” as the plant or its beans prior to processing, while the term “chocolate” refers to a product made from the beans. “Cocoa” is the term for chocolate in powdered form, though across the Atlantic, the British frequently use the word “cacao.”

“Chocolate” has been traced by etymologists back to the Aztec word “xocoatl,” which described a bitter beverage brewed from cacao beans. The Latin name for the cacao tree, Theobroma cacao, translates to “food of the gods.” Historians today estimate that chocolate has been around for at least 2000 years, but recent research suggests it may be even older.

Although it’s difficult to establish an exact date for the origin of chocolate, it’s evident that it was valued from the very beginning. For many centuries in pre-modern Latin America, cacao beans were actually used as currency. A single bean could buy one tamale, while 100 beans could be traded for a good turkey hen, as noted in a 16th-century Aztec document. Both the Mayans and Aztecs considered the cacao bean magical and sometimes divine. It was commonly a part of sacred rituals of birth, death, and marriage.

It wasn’t until Europeans discovered the Americas and became familiar with the native cuisine that chocolate made its entrance on the world stage. According to legend, the Aztec king Montezuma welcomed the Spanish explorer Hernando Cortes with a feast that included drinking chocolate. Although chocolate didn’t initially agree with the European palate, once it was mixed with honey or sugar it rapidly grew in popularity throughout Spain.

By the 17th century, Europeans had embraced chocolate as a glamorous drink, reputed to possess medicinal, nutritious, and even aphrodisiac properties (rumors suggest that Casanova was a big fan of chocolate). But it remained primarily a drink of the upper class until the invention of the steam engine revolutionized chocolate production, resulting in chocolate becoming available in mass quantities to society at large.

It was in 1828 that a Dutch chemist devised a method to create powdered chocolate by filtering out approximately half the natural fat (cacao butter) from chocolate liquor, pulverizing what remained and introducing a mixture of alkaline salts to negate the bitter taste. This product, known as “Dutch cocoa,” eventually led to the development of solid chocolate.

Joseph Fry, in 1847, is credited with the creation of the world’s first chocolate bar. Fry discovered that by adding melted cacao butter back into Dutch cocoa, the result was a moldable chocolate paste. Within twenty years of Fry’s discovery, the now famous company Cadbury was selling boxes of chocolate candy in Britain. Soon thereafter, another recognizable name, Nestle, pioneered the creation of milk chocolate in Switzerland.

During the Revolutionary War in America, chocolate was so valued that it was included in soldiers’ rations in lieu of wages. Most of us today wouldn’t likely settle for payment in chocolate over dollars, but that doesn’t mean the humble cacao bean isn’t a potent force in the economy. In the U.S. alone, chocolate is a four billion dollar industry, and the average American consumes at least half a pound per month.

In recent times, a chocolate revolution has swept across the globe, marked by a burgeoning interest in high-quality, artisanal chocolates and sustainable, efficient cacao farming and harvesting techniques. Due to this shift in consumer tastes, large corporations like Hershey’s have developed artisanal chocolate lines by acquiring smaller premium chocolate producers, and independent chocolatiers have proliferated as well.

Here in the Pacific Northwest artisanal chocolate has exploded in recent years. One of the first chocolatiers on the Portland scene was Moonstruck chocolate; though recently sold to a larger company, Moonstruck helped establish a market for gourmet chocolate in the city. Currently, there are a plethora of artisanal chocolatiers in the local area. Missionary Chocolates in Northeast Portland, founded by a doctor with a passion for chocolate, produces delicious dairy free, gluten free, vegan chocolate and non-allergenic truffles. A Yen for Chocolate was founded and is operated by Cristina Yen, a chocolatier who has brought her multicultural experiences from around the globe to Northwest Portland, where she handcrafts mouthwatering chocolate creations for a growing clientele. Named in honor of the Wildwood Trail in Portland’s Washington Park, Wildwood Chocolate sources the finest ingredients and crafts masterfully blended ingredients such as cardamom, honey and berries with chocolate to create award-winning confections.

So the next time your sweet tooth has a hankering for chocolate, know that this wonderful treat has a history stretching back to indigenous peoples of South and Central America, and that the tasty chocolate morsels available in your local supermarket are the result of centuries of trial, error, and innovation. And if you wish to sample the cutting edge creations of local chocolatiers, be sure to visit some of the artisanal producers featured above, or the myriad of other producers in our country’s continually evolving chocolate landscape.

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