History: Chocolate’s Journey Through the Years
Anthropologists have found evidence of cacao consumption dating back close to 4,000 years. The Olmec tribe of South America appears to be the first to have fermented, dried, pressed and roasted cacao beans, creating the basic process that is still followed today. Cacao was enjoyed as a bitter beverage, often mixed with chilies, herbs and flowers, and used for royal and religious ceremonies. It was also prized for its medicinal qualities. It was the Olmecs that introduced cacao to the Mayans, who eventually introduced it to the Aztec tribe. It quickly became a form of currency and the conquering Aztec armies carried it throughout Mexico.
The Spanish Conquistadors recognized the special value attributed to cacao and brought this treasure back to the Old World in 1572 where it was quickly embraced. By the 17th century, drinking chocolate, made more popular by the innovation of added sugar, had spread to France, Italy, England and Portugal. Elaborate rituals, painstaking preparation and costly paraphernalia became the norm. Cacao also became a flavoring in savory dishes both in Europe and colonial Mexico. Doctors began prescribing it for a range of ailments from syphilis to depression. But chocolate remained an exotic luxury only available to the wealthy.
That changed in the early 1800s. Several manufacturing innovations helped turn chocolate into a ubiquitous treat. Discovering how to separate cocoa butter and cocoa solids allowed powder to be made. Treating that powder with alkali (Dutch process) turned it darker and opened the door for the cheaper, light-colored Forastero powder to be used. The creation of conching machines to smooth ground cocoa’s grainy texture was a necessary step for chocolate’s use in confections. Finally, the addition of milk by the Swiss in 1879 broadened the appeal of lower priced chocolate even further and set it on a path towards worldwide passion.