Tasty History: Chocolate

Hello guys! It has been a really long time since we have had time to write a proper blog entry. But now hat we have got the podcast up and running and the team is reconfigured, it is time to deliver. And, our first topic since the formation fof Nu History couldn’t be more delicious: Chocolate! Whether you like it dark, with milk, hot, cold, as a bar or a drink, I believe there is a chocolate for every kind of person. So, today I will give you an insight into how chocolate came to be. For this, we must first travel thousands of years into the past to one of my favourite historical areas: pre-Hispanic Meso America.

The Origins of Cacao

Just to clarify; chocolate is a product derivate from cacao or cocoa beans. The actual word for chocolate comes from the Aztec xocolatl, which meant bitter water. However, cacao was used way before the Aztecs to create indeed bitter tasting beverages made with cocoa and often used for either ritual or medicinal purposes. In a recent study (2018) published by Sonia Zarillo et al. trace back the earliest recorded used of cacao to 5300 years ago, in the area of Santa Ana, (Ecuador). Coe and Coe also state that the Olmecs had domesticated cacao plants and used its produce for medicinal purposes and religious rituals, and we have ample evidence of this from the area of Veracruz (1900–900 BCE). But the most extensive knowledge of Meso-American culture that we have regarding cacao comes from the Mayan culture, (500-800CE) where there is an abundance of ceramics that depicts its varied uses. It is also the Mayans from who we get the word cacao as kakaw. Kakaw was essentially a gloop of cacao made into a drink and the most renown discovery of this type of product is found at Rio Azul. This is the site where in the 90s the scientists from Hershey Corporation first identified the original chemical signature of cacao. By the time the Aztec empire took control of most of Meso America, things had changed. It seems that the Aztecs didn’t actually grow their own cacao already by the 1400s, and instead they used to obtain it as an import, often paid as a tax from areas they conquered. They also started drinking it cold and branching its uses, so that in Aztec culture cacao was an aphrodisiac according to Szogyi.

Cocoa Beans Comes to Europe

The beans were brought back to Europe by the cargo ships from the Americas. It was in fact Columbus who originally shipped them to Spain, however they got little interest from the public until much later when chocolate was introduced to the Spanish court. Despite it being first found by the Spaniards, the success of cocoa and chocolate in Europe would come from other nations, two main rivals of Spain in fact: the English and the Dutch. Cocoa was prominently imported during the reign of Charles I and during the 16th century, it was actually used as a drug to solve tooth decay and dysentery. Moreover, one of the physicians for Queen Anne, Hans Sloane, seemingly saw Jamaican workers during his visit to the island back in 1680 mixing cocoa powder with breast milk as a form drink, so he decided to borrow the concept (but with cow’s milk) for medicinal purposes once more. At this stage, the history of chocolate takes a dark turn as during the early modern period many African slaves were used in the cocoa plantations that the English, Dutch and French had in the transatlantic colonies. And so, with cheap labour and the invention of the first mechanic cocoa grinder in Bristol (1729) the European obsession with chocolate – and slavery – continued all the way to the 19th century when things changed once again.

Dutch Production, English Consumerism: Cocoa in the 19th Century

The transformation of cacao into the product that we could recognise nowadays only happened in the 19th century thanks to a clever Dutch chemist. Coenrad van Houten came up with the idea of removing cacao butter and added baking powder to the mix all successfully achieved by his creation: the cocoa press (1828). He had previously invented a alkaline solution that made chocolate less bitter to the taste, so the “Dutch Cocoa” invention made it a lot more marketable. Interestingly most the cocoa consumed in the UK during the 19th century was produced in the Netherlands, making this a very profitable industry for the Dutch. In Victorian Britain the first chocolate houses opened in the area of Mayfair and the concept drove English society into an absolute craze. In fact, at the royal apartments in Hampton Court we know that Willian III, as well as George I and II had a dedicated chocolate kitchen. Lizzie Collingham argues however that during this period much of the cocoa powder used in these establishments was heavily adultered with other products. Amongst these feature things like lentils or tapioca, which actually made what they served more similar to a cocoa soup rather than a cocoa drink.  However by then, the price of cocoa dropped becoming more affordable and an easily available product in many houses. Cadbury’s chocolate in the UK was a great conduit for this phenomenon. Still popular today, the first shop was opened in Birmingham in 1824 by John Cadbury. Collingham again adds that the most influential brand that contributed to the popularisation of cocoa amongst the working clasess was not Cadbury, but the now forgotten Dr Tibbles’ Vi-Cocoa. Vi-Cocoa distributed a blend of cocoa, kola nut, malt and hops that made it incredibly popular between 1895 and 1910. In her book The Hungry Empire, she says that Cadbury’s target audience would have most likely been middle classes women, whilst Vi-Cocoa was targeting the working class man with an alternative to tea.

Towards the end of the 19th century, Daniel Peters enhanced Victorian chocolate by using powdered milk in the beverages and therefore creating milk chocolate, and instant national favourite. Dutch cocoa balanced bitterness reached a new height when the Swiss chocolatier Rodolpe Lindt (1879) used his conching machine to turn cocoa butter into an improved product, with better texture and flavour. The manufacturing advances of the time also allowed for Lindt’s product to be easier to distribute and reach new markets, so Lindt was a key player in changing chocolate into a food item rather than a drink. Meanwhile in America? Cacao beans were also used as a currency up until the 19th century in Mexico, Nicaragua, Guatemala, and Brazil. Funnily enough, these were easy to fake: empty casks were often filled with soil to pretend they were ripe cacao beans.

So as you can see the journey of cacao, cocoa, and chocolate is a varied and multicultural one. From its origins in America to its developments in Europe kakaw has adopted many forms and purposes. And, although I certainly believe most of us don’t use it as a medicine for tooth decay…I think we can probably agree it is a medicine for the soul and, as recent scientific research confirms, good for our mental health. With this history of chocolate, and the many more to come articles and podcasts regarding food history, I am trying to send a message of hope and unity. I truly believe that food brings people together, and in this day an age of conflict and division, humans and human history could do more with interconnectivity and hope.

I hope you join us on the next one 🙂

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