The History of Chocolate
By Robert Matsumura, Contributing Writer
When we hear the word chocolate, most of us picture a bar, ice cream, baked goods, or a confection of some type. Typically, we think of eating chocolate, not drinking it, and a sweet taste is usually associated with it rather than a savory one. However, for approximately ninety percent of chocolate’s extensive history, it was primarily a beverage, and sugar didn’t figure into the equation at all.
While the terminology can be a bit puzzling, most contemporary experts refer to “cacao” as the plant or its beans prior to processing, while the term “chocolate” refers to a product made from the beans. “Cocoa” is the term for chocolate in powdered form, though across the Atlantic, the British frequently use the word “cacao.”
“Chocolate” has been traced by etymologists back to the Aztec word “xocoatl,” which described a bitter beverage brewed from cacao beans. The Latin name for the cacao tree, Theobroma cacao, translates to “food of the gods.” Historians today estimate that chocolate has been around for at least 2000 years, but recent research suggests it may be even older.
Although it’s difficult to establish an exact date for the origin of chocolate, it’s evident that it was valued from the very beginning. For many centuries in pre-modern Latin America, cacao beans were actually used as currency. A single bean could buy one tamale, while 100 beans could be traded for a good turkey hen, as noted in a 16th-century Aztec document. Both the Mayans and Aztecs considered the cacao bean magical and sometimes divine. It was commonly a part of sacred rituals of birth, death, and marriage.
It wasn’t until Europeans discovered the Americas and became familiar with the native cuisine that chocolate made its entrance on the world stage. According to legend, the Aztec king Montezuma welcomed the Spanish explorer Hernando Cortes with a feast that included drinking chocolate. Although chocolate didn’t initially agree with the European palate, once it was mixed with honey or sugar, it rapidly grew in popularity throughout Spain.
By the 17th century, Europeans had embraced chocolate as a glamorous drink, reputed to possess medicinal, nutritious, and even aphrodisiac properties (rumors suggest that Casanova was a big fan of chocolate). But it remained primarily a drink of the upper class until the invention of the steam engine revolutionized chocolate production, resulting in chocolate becoming available in mass quantities to society at large.
It was in 1828 that a Dutch chemist devised a method to create powdered chocolate by filtering out approximately half the natural fat (cacao butter) from chocolate liquor, pulverizing what remained and introducing a mixture of alkaline salts to negate the bitter taste. This product, known as “Dutch cocoa,” eventually led to the development of solid chocolate.
Joseph Fry, in 1847, is credited with the creation of the world’s first chocolate bar. Fry discovered that by adding melted cacao butter back into Dutch cocoa, the result was a moldable chocolate paste. Within twenty years of Fry’s discovery, the now famous company Cadbury was selling boxes of chocolate candy in Britain. Soon thereafter, another recognizable name, Nestle, pioneered the creation of milk chocolate in Switzerland.
During the Revolutionary War in America, chocolate was so valued that it was included in soldiers’ rations in lieu of wages. Most of us today wouldn’t likely settle for payment in chocolate over dollars, but that doesn’t mean the humble cacao bean isn’t a potent force in the economy. In the U.S. alone, chocolate is a four billion dollar industry, and the average American consumes at least half a pound per month.
In recent times, a chocolate revolution has swept across the globe, marked by a burgeoning interest in high-quality, artisanal chocolates and sustainable, efficient cacao farming and harvesting techniques. Due to this shift in consumer tastes, large corporations like Hershey’s have developed artisanal chocolate lines by acquiring smaller premium chocolate producers, and independent chocolatiers have proliferated as well.
Here in the Pacific Northwest, artisanal chocolate has exploded in recent years. One such example is Canby’s Puddin’ River Chocolates & Confections, the pride and joy of Owner and Founder Teresa Sasse. It began in 2003 when she left the deli and catering industry to explore new avenues of creativity. Chocolate offered endless possibilities, and so began a love affair which would provide an outlet to feed her passion. And while she finds great joy in producing some of the best chocolates you’ll find anywhere in the world, it’s not just about that. Teresa is exceedingly passionate too about the history of chocolate; where the cocoa beans are sourced from and who the farmers are who harvest them.
Puddin’ River’s chocolate is a unique one-of-a-kind blend, composed of several different types, all from reputable sources in Europe, and all devoid of harmful additives found in so many domestic brands. Every product she offers is a perfected recipe resulting from years of passionate trial and error, research and love. Taste is subjective. We all have favorite desserts, and it’s easy to argue the merits of one brand or type over another. But in the case of Puddin’ River, there’s no argument: it’s simply the best.
So the next time your sweet tooth has a hankering for chocolate, know that this wonderful treat has a history stretching back to indigenous peoples of South and Central America, and that the tasty chocolate morsels available in your local supermarket are the result of centuries of trial, error, and innovation. And if you wish to sample the cutting edge creations of local chocolatiers, be sure to visit some of the artisanal producers featured above, or the myriad of other producers in our country’s continually evolving chocolate landscape.