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Earliest Dated Chocolate!
Chocolate’s Roots in Ancient Mesoamerica. We tend to think of chocolate as a sweet candy created during modern times. But actually, chocolate dates back to the ancient peoples of Mesoamerica who drank chocolate as a bitter beverage. For these people, chocolate wasn’t just a favorite food—it also played an important role in their religious and social lives. The ancient Maya grew cacao and made it into a beverage. The first people clearly known to have discovered the secret of cacao were the Classic Period Maya (250-900 C.E. [A.D.]). The Maya and their ancestors in Mesoamerica took the tree from the rainforest and grew it in their own backyards, where they harvested, fermented, roasted, and ground the seeds into a paste. When mixed with water, chile peppers, cornmeal, and other ingredients, this paste made a frothy, spicy chocolate drink. The Aztecs adopted cacao. By 1400, the Aztec empire dominated a sizeable segment of Mesoamerica. The Aztecs traded with Maya and other peoples for cacao and often required that citizens and conquered peoples pay their tribute in cacao seeds—a form of Aztec money. Like the earlier Maya, the Aztecs also consumed their bitter chocolate drink seasoned with spices—sugar was an agricultural product unavailable to the ancient Mesoamericans. Drinking chocolate was an important part of Maya and Aztec life. Many people in Classic Period Maya society could drink chocolate at least on occasion, although it was a particularly favored beverage for royalty. But in Aztec society, primarily rulers, priests, decorated soldiers, and honored merchants could partake of this sacred brew. Chocolate also played a special role in both Maya and Aztec royal and religious events. Priests presented cacao seeds as offerings to the gods and served chocolate drinks during sacred ceremonies.
Europe Makes It Expensive!
Cacao Becomes an Expensive European Import Europe’s first contact with chocolate came during the conquest of Mexico in 1521. The Spaniards recognized the value attached to cacao and observed the Aztec custom of drinking chocolate. Soon after, the Spanish began to ship cacao seeds back home. An expensive import, chocolate remained an elite beverage and a status symbol for Europe’s upper classes for the next 300 years. Sweetened chocolate became an international taste sensation. When the Spanish brought cacao home, they doctored up the bitter brew with cinnamon and other spices and began sweetening it with sugar. They managed to keep their delicious drink a Spanish secret for almost 100 years before the rest of Europe discovered what they were missing. Sweetened chocolate soon became the latest and greatest fad to hit the continent. Chocolate was a European symbol of wealth and power. Because cacao and sugar were expensive imports, only those with money could afford to drink chocolate. In fact, in France, chocolate was a state monopoly that could be consumed only by members of the royal court. Like the Maya and the Aztecs, Europeans developed their own special protocol for the drinking of chocolate. They even designed elaborate porcelain and silver serving pieces and cups for chocolate that acted as symbols of wealth and power. Cacao farming required lots of land and workers. Cacao and sugar were labor-intensive agricultural products. To keep up with the demand for chocolate, Spain and many other European nations established colonial plantations for growing these plants. A combination of wage laborers and enslaved peoples were used to create a plantation workforce.
Chocolate Meets Mass Production and Machinery For centuries, chocolate remained a handmade luxury sipped only by society’s upper crust. But by the 1800s, mass production made solid chocolate candy affordable to a much broader public. To meet the demands of today’s global market, chocolate manufacturing relies on both ancient techniques in the field and new technologies in the factory. New inventions and ingredients improved chocolate’s taste and texture. The Industrial Revolution witnessed the development of an enormous number of new mechanical inventions and ushered in the era of the factory. The steam engine made it possible to grind cacao and produce large amounts of chocolate cheaply and quickly. Later inventions like the cocoa press and the conching machine made it possible to create smooth, creamy, solid chocolate for eating—not just liquid chocolate for drinking. Cacao growing hasn’t changed much since ancient times. New processes and machinery have improved the quality of chocolate and the speed at which it can be produced. However, cacao farming itself remains basically unaltered. People grow cacao in equatorial climates all around the world today using traditional techniques first developed in Mesoamerica. Cacao is still harvested, fermented, dried, cleaned, and roasted mostly by hand. We use cacao for more than just making chocolate. Today, additional steps in the processing of cacao help create a variety of new flavors and forms for chocolate candy. But cacao is more than a source for calories and confections. The chemicals and substances in cacao can be extracted and incorporated into cosmetics and medicines. And the by-products of cacao can be used as mulch or fodder for cattle.