Chocolate, the beloved treat that has become a staple of our lives, has a rich and fascinating history. From its humble beginnings as a bitter drink consumed by Mesoamericans over 4,000 years ago to its current status as a multi-billion dollar industry, chocolate has come a long way.
Origins of Chocolate
Chocolate was first consumed as a drink in Mesoamerica, present-day Mexico, where it was brewed from cocoa and mixed with spices. The drink was bitter and was said to have medicinal properties, often consumed during rituals and other special occasions. The Aztecs and Mayans were the first people to recognize the value of chocolate in the tropical rainforests of the Amazon basin. They praised chocolate as a heavenly gift and even used it as a currency.
The Word “Chocolate”
The word “chocolate” can be traced back to the Aztec word “xocoatl,” which was the name for the bitter drink made from cacao beans.
Chocolate and the Aztecs
The Aztecs drank their chocolate much like the Mayans, although they sometimes liked it cold. One legend has it that the Aztec God Quetzalcoatl brought cocoa to earth and was cast out of paradise for giving it to man. Apparently, only the gods were fit to drink chocolate!
The Arrival of Chocolate in Europe
When chocolate entered Spain, it was considered medicinal. Doctors prescribed it to cure fevers, cool body temperature, aid in digestion, and as a painkiller. However, it was soon realized that chocolate was too good to be used just as a medicine. It was the first caffeine to reach Europe, even before coffee and tea.
The Dark Side of Chocolate
As chocolate spread through Europe, the demand took off. To keep up with the demand, plantations sprung up, and thousands of people were enslaved to produce cacao. This is where it took a really dark turn. The chocolate industry was built on the backs of slaves, many of whom were kidnapped from their homes in Africa and forced to work on cocoa plantations in South America. The exploitation and abuse of these individuals, many of whom were children, is a shameful chapter in the history of chocolate.
The Birth of Modern Chocolate
In the 1850s, an Englishman created the world’s first solid chocolate by adding more cocoa butter, rather than hot water, to cocoa powder and sugar. This is when chocolate, as we see it today, was finally born.
The Production of Chocolate
Today, over 3 billion tons of cacao supplies a 35 billion dollar chocolate industry. Chocolate is derived from the fruit of the cacao tree, which grows in tropical climates. The cacao tree is native to Central and South America, but once European invaders discovered the delicacy in the 18th century, the popularity of chocolate took off and farmers soon established plantations in other parts of the world.
The Cacao Tree and Its Fruit
Cacao trees bear fruit that are about the same size and shape of a football. These lumpy berries, or pods, are full of up to 50 sour seeds, or beans, covered in white pulp. The pods are harvested by hand and cut open to remove the cocoa beans which are then placed in covered trays where they ferment for several days. After fermentation, the beans are uncovered and left out to dry.
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