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origins of chocolate hero 

The Origins of Chocolate

 

cacao pods 1 croppedEvidence of the first cacao cultivation can be traced to Central America as early as 1000 B.C.  The source of chocolate is an evergreen tree that produces a melon shaped fruit.  Theobroma cacao is named after the Greek phrase meaning "Fruit of Gods" and thrives under tropical canopies in five geographic regions all within 20 degrees of the equator.  Seedlings require rich soil, humidity, plenty of rainfall and five years to begin producing fruit.  It is thought that Olmec natives of that period were more interested in the sweet pulp and probably disgarded the seeds which are extremely bitter until fermented, dried and roasted.

Early chocolate consumption was primarily in the form of a prized beverage that was painstakingly prepared.  Surviving hieroglyphics show us that the Mayans crushed roasted seeds into a thick paste which when mixed with water and poured back and forth between two pots, resulted in a rich, chocolaty and foamy drink.  Cacao was often ground with chili peppers and other spices to produce a rather bitter drink that played an important role in Mayan rituals.  Cacao beans were also used as a form of currency.  Every April, Mayan plantation farmers performed a ceremony to honor the god Ek Chuah to ensure his protection of this most valuable crop to their empire. 

ekchuahThe Aztecs who rose to power around 1200 A.D., likely obtained their beans from trade or conquer since their land was not suitable for Therbroma cultivation.  The Aztecs also valued their liquid chocolate which they drank hot rather than cold.  The word chocolate is believed to be a derivative of the Aztec word cacahuatl or "bitter water".  There is some evidence that cacao was also ground and mixed with tobacco for smoking purposes. 

The cacao bean eventually found its way to Europe as a result of Christopher Columbus' discoveries of the Americas and subsequent conquistador's conquest of the Aztecs in the late 1500s.  A honeyed or sugar sweetened version of the foaming chocolate drink found popularity in the Spanish court of the 17th century, a time when travel and trade flourished between Spain and her new world conquests.

It was believed that chocolate found its way to France through the marriage of Ana Maria Mauricia, Infanta of Spain and Archduchess of Austria, to Louis XIII and subsequent introduction of Spanish foods including chocolate to the French aristocracy in 1615.  Within a century it spread throughout Europe, prized not only for its culinary value but also for medicinal use.  Eventually spices such as cinammon, nutmeg or cloves were added to flavor this new treat.  It is rumored that chocolate's strong taste was often used to mask poisons, perhaps having something to do with the origin of the phrase "Death by Chocolate"?

The first major advance in solid candy making came in 1828 when Dutchman Coenraad Van Houten invented a press that forced the cocal butter (fatty part) from the more pure chocolate leaving small, hard and dry cakes of chocolate.  By adding back small amounts of the cocoa butter the resulting product was easier to mix with other ingredients and perfect for molding into a solid shape.  Other nineteenth century inventions and experiments resulted in the improved texture and appearance of chocolate.  The introduction of the steam engine helped to mechanize laborious bean grnding to significantly reduce production costs and the dawn of refrigeration allowed for candy production year round.

From its origins as a revered Maya beverage, the market for chocolate today has reached an annual worldwide consumption of 3 million tons of cocoa beans, with bean production employing an estimated 40 million people.  It seems that chocolate is truly a gift from the gods that "keeps on giving".

Image of Ek Chuah is being used courtesy of www.thinkquest.org.

Image of Cacao Pods courtesy of R. Femmer/NBII.gov.


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