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The origins of chocolate

When first discovered, cocoa beans were used as a currency and unit of measure in Central America. As early as 1000 BC, a Zontli was equal to 400 beans, with a Xiquipilli equalling 8,000 beans. In the Mayan script, a basket containing 8,000 beans was used to symbolise the number 8,000.


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Chocolate residue has been discovered in Olmec pottery, meaning that this ancient Mexican civilisation was drinking chocolate as early as 2,600 years ago. It is likely that this civilisation domesticated the cacao tree – a species that has always been considered as the tree of the gods. In Belize, a pot was discovered containing traces of cocoa, proving that chocolate was consumed here as early as the 6th century.

The Mayans also cultivated the cacao tree. Cocoa beans were extremely valuable and are said to have been used for bartering. It seems likely that the drink produced from these beans was used for medicinal purposes or during certain rituals. The Popol Vuh (the so-called “Mayan Book of Genesis”) attributes the discovery of chocolate to the gods. It is claimed that this drink was created during the natural union between the hero, Hun Hunaphu, and a young girl from Xibalba, the Mayan underworld. Hun Hunaphu was decapitated by the Xibalbans. His head was then hung from a dead tree, which miraculously bore calabash-shaped fruit, known as cocoa pods. The hero’s head is said to have spat into the young girl’s hand, leading to magical fertilisation. Since then, the Mayan people saw chocolate as a symbolic precursor of marriage. Cocoa was also used to purify young Mayan children as part of the ceremony. Similarly, the dead were accompanied by cocoa for their journey to the afterlife.

In around 1300 AD, the Aztecs associated chocolate with Xochiquetzal, the goddess of fertility. In ancient Mexico, chocolate was consumed as a bitter, spiced drink known as xocoatl, often flavoured with vanilla, chilli and annatto. Xocoatl was said to combat fatigue, a belief that is likely to be due to its theobromine content. Chocolate was only consumed by noblemen and warriors, since cocoa was a rare delicacy that had to be imported from the orchards of Tabasco and Soconusco, which belonged to the Mayans. Cocoa was a highly prized product across Mesoamerica, and cocoa beans were often used as currency. It was also used to create chocolate-based drinks in combination with other foodstuffs such as maize gruel (which acted as an emulsifier) and honey.

 

The conquest of chocolate

Christopher Columbus threw the beans that he had received from the American Indians overboard, having mistaken them for goat droppings. This gave Hernán Cortés the privilege of being the first person to report back on chocolate to his masters in Spain in 1528. Cortés first discovered the chocolate-flavoured drink during the conquest of Mexico in 1519. Cocoa was consumed widely among missionaries and conquistadors in the New World. The subsequent discovery of sugar cane meant that chocolate could be made less bitter and more affordable for all.

Chocolate was first introduced to Europe at the court of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor in the 16th century. By the 17th century, chocolate had become an extremely sought-after delicacy among the Spanish aristocracy and clergy. Chocolate subsequently expanded into other Spanish colonies such as Flanders and the Netherlands. In 1615, chocolate was first discovered in France at the wedding between the Spanish Infanta Anne of Austria and Louis XIII, in Bayonne. However, it was Louis XIV and his wife Maria Theresa of Spain who first introduced chocolate into the customs of the court at the Palace of Versailles. At the time, chocolate was consumed as a hot beverage, just like coffee. Yet only the king’s court had access to this drink. It was not yet available to the population at large.

Chocolate consumption subsequently spread among the noble and rich classes. It was renowned as a famous drink from America that simply had to be drunk. In her letters, Marie de Rabutin-Chantal, Marquise de Sévigné, said of chocolate: “It flatters you for a while, it warms you for an instant; then all of a sudden, it kindles a mortal fever in you”. Chocolate remained a privilege of the rich classes, except in a few rare regions. In south-western France (Bayonne region) for example, an influx of Jewish merchants expelled from Spain by the Inquisition led to the popularisation of chocolate, and chocolate makers could be found even among modest families.

 

The democratisation of chocolate

Chocolate became accessible to the entire world during the Industrial Revolution. It became an object of trade and commerce that grew in popularity and began to take numerous different forms. In 1826, Dutch chemist and chocolate maker Coenraad Johannes van Houten filed a patent for a lower-fat, more digestible form of cocoa. To the great delight of chocolate makers, chocolate was sold as a foodstuff with health benefits. With the industrial production of cocoa powder in its infancy, the cost of the product began to fall.

It was introduced in France following the migration of Spanish Jews fleeing the Inquisition to Bayonne.

 

The birth of a chocolate making industry

The first chocolate factories appeared in Europe in the early 19th century, including some of the major names that would dominate the chocolate making industry in the middle of the century.

Chocolate was regularly consumed in Spanish Catalonia and in the Roussillon region of France. The first factory in France was founded by chocolate maker Jules Pares, in the Pyrénées-Orientales region, in 1814 (a company that would go on to become Cemoi).

In 1815, Dutch chemist and chocolate maker Coenraad Johannes van Houten set up his first factory, followed a few years later by Swiss chocolate makers Cailler, Suchard (in 1824), Kohler (in 1828), Lindt and Tobler.
In 1821, Englishman Cadbury produced the first crunchy dark chocolate. In order to meet industrial demand, cacao trees were introduced to Africa and the first plantations were created. This led to the emergence of industrial chocolate factories, mainly in France, Switzerland and the Netherlands.
In 1828, van Houten filed a patent for powdered chocolate, involving the removal of cocoa butter. Van Houten was the first person to invent a process for separating low-fat cocoa (or press cake) and cocoa butter, enabling manufacturers to adjust the relative quantities of low-fat cocoa and cocoa butter in cocoa paste. In 1830, Kohler released the first hazelnut chocolate. In 1847, English company Fry produced the first chocolate in block format.
In 1848, Victor-Auguste Poulain set up an industrial chocolate and confectionery factory in Blois.
In 1856, Jacques Klaus opened his first chocolate factory in Le Locle, Switzerland.
In 1862, the Rowntree chocolate factory opened in England, followed by the first Tobler chocolate factory in Switzerland in 1868. In 1870, Jean Tobler developed milk chocolate. In the same year, Émile Menier opened a modern chocolate production factory in Noisiel, in the Seine-et-Marne region. The opening of this factory led to a fall in the price of chocolate in France. This factory, along with its worker town, is now listed as a historic monument.
In 1875, Daniel Peter developed milk chocolate in his factory in Vevey, following a long testing process.
In 1879, Rodolphe Lindt invented creamy chocolate and opened his first chocolate factory in Switzerland. His process involved allowing the grinder containing the chocolate to continue operating for much longer than usual, in order to create a creamier cocoa paste. His secret was only revealed in 1901, when it entered the public domain.
The early 1880s saw the development of the Belgian chocolate industry, with the opening of the first Côte d’Or chocolate factory.
The first chocolate bars appeared in the early 1920s, with Dutch company Kwatta inventing the very first 30 g chocolate bars. American company Mars launched the Milky Way, and Dutch company Nuts released its eponymous hazelnut bar.