Christopher Columbus is believed to be the first European to discover chocolate. When Columbus returned to Spain in 1502 from his fourth voyage to the New World, he introduced many treasures to the court of King Ferdinand. Among them were cocoa beans, almond-shaped seeds from the cacao tree that are the source of all the chocolate and cocoa products we enjoy today.
A few decades later, during his conquest of Mexico, the Spanish explorer, Hernando Cortez, found Aztec Indians using cocoa beans to prepare a drink called “chocolate”, meaning “warm liquid”. The Aztec Emperor Montezuma, who reportedly drank 50 or more portions daily, served guests this royal drink in ceremonial golden goblets, treating it like nectar for the gods.
In fact, the cacao tree’s botanical name, Theobroma cacao, pays homage to its mythical origins. Translated from the Greek, “theobroma” means “food of the gods”. The Aztecs held that prophets had brought cocoa beans to their lands. Thus, the beans were a valued commodity, not only for use as a kingly drink but also as a medium of exchange. Four cocoa beans were the price of a turkey, for example.
Cortez, who described chocolate as “the divine drink … which builds up resistance and fights fatigue”, and his countrymen, conceived the idea of sweetening the bitter drink with cane sugar. The recipe for the sweetened frothy beverage underwent several more changes in Spain, where newly discovered spices such as cinnamon and vanilla were added as flavorings.
Spain wisely began to plant cacao trees in its overseas possessions but consigned the processing of cocoa beans to monasteries under a veil of secrecy. They kept the recipe to themselves for nearly 100 years, but the secret was finally leaked to the rest of Europe. As first, chocolate was restricted to the nobility. In fact, the Spanish Princess Maria Theresa presented cocoa beans as an engagement gift to Louis XIV, and soon chocolate was the rage of the fashionable Court of France. The famous historic figures Casanova and Madame DuBarry both believed that chocolate was conducive to romance. So popular did chocolate become that in 1657 the first of many English “chocolate houses” was established, to serve the drink to the general public.
Chocolate drinking arrived in the American colonies in 1765, when the first chocolate factory opened in New England. Even Thomas Jefferson extolled chocolate’s virtues, describing “…the superiority of chocolate for both health and nourishment”.
Mass production of chocolate began when the steam engine, invented by James Watt in 1770, mechanized the cocoa bean grinding process, thereby replacing the time-consuming hand method of manufacture. The invention of the cocoa press in 1828 by C.J. Van Houten did much to improve the quality of the beverage by squeezing out part of the cocoa butter, the fat that occurs naturally in cocoa beans.
In the middle of the 19th century, two significant developments revolutionized the chocolate industry. In 1847, an English company introduced solid “eating” chocolate. Now the public could enjoy chocolate eaten out of the hand as well as in the form of a drink. Three decades later, at Vevey, Switzerland, Daniel Peter found that milk could be added to chocolate to make a new product, appropriately named milk chocolate.
Since that time, chocolate has been manufactured in solid bar form and to enrobe confections, as well as an ingredient in baked goods, ice cream, and flavored milk. The value of chocolate as a portable food for both energy and morale has long been recognized. From the Civil War on, chocolate has been carried into the field by soldiers.