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Xocolatl: The Evolution of Chocolate

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Modern associations with chocolate are usually with joy, with celebrations (or with bad break-ups).  Chocolate has been known to Westerners for only 500 years, but it’s hard to imagine a world without it.  It’s also hard to imagine the stuff being prepared in any other way.

Chocolate’s origins were quite different from the stuff we know today.  Starting with the cacao bean, the other base ingredient the Aztecs used was ground-up maize.  The word chocolate comes from the Aztec word xocolatl (/ʃo ko ˌlat əl/, or /sho-ko-LOT-ul/), meaning “bitter water”, since it was usually served in a liquefied form.  And bitter it was: the Aztecs seldom sweetened it.  Sometimes it was prepared with honey, but that was only one of the many recipes.  Others included vanilla, or chilis, or any number of spices.  

Xocolatl was a luxury in ancient Mesoamerica.  Cacao beans were very valuable, and said to be a gift from the feathered serpent god Quetzalcoatl.  You could trade about 80 of them for a canoe, and you had to watch out for counterfeiters, who would sometimes pass off empty cacao shells filled with mud as the real thing.  Xocolatl was considered a powerful intoxicant, and was consumed in serious ceremonies.

Christopher Columbus was the first European to encounter cacao beans, which he described in his fourth trip to the Americas in 1502 as “almonds”.  Spanish soldiers and colonists were aware of the beans and how the Aztecs (and Incas) felt about them, but chocolate itself didn’t make its way to Europe until after the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs, late in the 16th century.  When it started to appear in the Spanish courts, the custom was to sometimes add honey, as the Aztecs sometimes did, or more commonly to add sugar.  The bitter version of chocolate was never very popular in Europe.

Since most of the Mesoamerican population had been decimated by disease, African slaves were brought in to work the cacao plantations of Central America.  Cacao beans were also planted in Africa and Asia, which also had favorable climates for the beans’ cultivation.  The work of cultivating and processing the beans was tedious, but it sped up with processes invented by the Dutch during the Industrial Revolution.  A new form of chocolate, lower in fat and less bitter, was released to the world in the early 19th century.  This opened up a new era of chocolate.  Recipes were developed over the next century by people who would become household names: Lindt, Nestlé, Cadbury, and Hershey, among others.

Today, most of the world’s cacao beans are grown in Africa, with the vast majority of them grown in Ivory Coast.  Cacao beans are subject to price fluctuations on the world market.  While commodity traders can buy and sell the beans when the price changes rapidly, cacao farmers don’t have that option, and often turn to slave labor in order to remain in business.  80 beans won’t get you as far today as they used to.

The god Quetzalcoatl

Comments

Foster Dean said…
New emergent of private label candy manufacturers who evolves the story of origination of chocolate. Nice to read about chocolate and its emergence but the taste it has in ancient days are bitter even today.

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