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History of Cocoa: From Mayan Lands to Modern Treats

Spanning centuries and crossing continents, cocoa has a rich heritage and history that many aren’t aware of.



When you think of authentic Italian cuisine tomato sauce probably comes to mind. But the tomato came from the New World. Same thing with potatoes for french fries. And while the chocolatiers of Europe have mastered the confectionery arts, chocolate too has roots in the Americas. Let's delve into the fascinating journey of the small cocoa seed that made a huge impact on the world.

It began in the ancient Americas.

The trip takes us to modern-day southern Mexico, once part of the Mayan Empire and home to the Aztecs. The word "chocolate" comes from the Nahuatl word "xocoatl" (pronounced sho-CO-la-to) for the unsweetened drink made from cocoa beans, translating to "bitter water." These ancient people not only consumed cocoa, but also revered the seed, using it in rituals and celebrations. And while it was mostly reserved for society's elites, common households also enjoyed cocoa, often mixed with water, honey, and chili peppers.


Cocoa beans were even used as currency. An Aztec document dating to the 16th century valued one bean as equal to a tamale and 100 cocoa beans were tradable for a turkey hen. The Aztecs considered cocoa beans to have more value than gold.

How long has cocoa been cultivated?

Historians estimate that the history of cocoa goes back 2,000 years but it's likely been longer than that. Pottery with cocoa residue appearing to date to around 1400 BCE was recently unearthed in Honduras, with evidence that the pulp of the cocoa fruit was being fermented to make an alcoholic beverage. Yes, the cocoa fruit can be used to make booze that's about as strong as beer.

Sugar originally wasn't part of the deal.

While both Aztecs and Mayans consumed cocoa for centuries, it was Europeans who added sugar to eventually give us what we think of chocolate today. History is murky on the exact date that the cocoa seed made its way to Europe, but most historians say it was soon after the discoveries of Christopher Columbus, around the mid-1500s. At the Spanish Royal Court sugar was added to make cocoa drinks for the aristocracy and the practice spread across the world from there.

Cocoa cultivation starts on a massive scale.

As a cocoa craving traveled across Europe in the 17th century, the need to grow cocoa trees grew exponentially. Which presented logistical problems as cocoa trees only grow in hot and humid climates that lie around 20 degrees north and south of the equator. So the Spanish began planting cocoa trees in the Philippines and the West Indies, while the rest of Europe turned to West Africa and South Asia to start up cocoa farms.


In Ghana, one of today’s largest cocoa producers, the cultivation of the crop is credited to one man: Tetteh Quarshie. In the late 1800s, the Ghanaian agriculturalist made a trip to an island of Equatorial Guinea that had been colonized by the Spanish. There he discovered cocoa cultivation and returned to his native Ghana with some beans. While some historians dispute that Quarshie was the very first person to plant cocoa beans in Ghana, most agree that his efforts were at the very start of an agricultural boom. A few decades later Ghana was the world's largest exporter of cocoa, renowned for high-quality beans that remain in demand to this day.

Europeans perfect the craft of cocoa processing.

While we largely credit Ghana for mass cocoa cultivation, it was European innovation that gave us the cocoa product we now enjoy in fine chocolate. In the 1600s a traveler named Antonio Carletti brought cocoa bean roasting and grinding techniques to Italy. Thus began years of Europeans improving on the Aztec techniques of drying, roasting, and grinding cocoa beans into a paste for drinks. In the early 1800s Coenraad Johannes van Houten, a Dutch chemist, developed a method of treating cocoa beans with alkaline salts to create powdered chocolate, which would eventually lead to the creation of the modern-day chocolate bar.


So maybe next time you savor some rich chocolate you’ll know that you’re tasting a unique piece of history unlike any other in the confectionery world.


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