OK, so everyone loves chocolate. But originally, “chocolate” was not the sweet meltable stuff that we know today…
The earliest traces of chocolate that have been found by archaeologists so far are tiny deposits of brown sludge stuck to the inside of pre-Olmec ceramic jugs from Mexico, almost 4000 years old. From writings and carvings we know that the Olmecs drank chocolate, and so did their descendants the Mayans. The Aztecs lived in an area where chocolate does not grow, so they obtained it through tribute paid by conquered peoples.
The cacao tree, from which chocolate is made, is native to Central America. The seedpods look like some sort of large ridged bean, which grows directly out of the trunk on a short stalk. Inside there are about three dozen seeds, each about the size of a peach pit, coated with a thick creamy white pulp. To harvest the chocolate, the seedpods are split open, the seeds are picked out of the pulp, and then piled up and left to ferment in the sun. The fermentation process breaks down some of the proteins inside the seeds and forms esters, which give it a fruity flavor. The cacao seeds are then roasted and ground into a powder.
In ancient Meso-America, this is as far as the process went. The ground-up cacao powder (today known as “cocoa”) was mixed into hot or cold water. Since the ancient Meso-Americans did not have sugar or honey, they flavored their chocolate with chili powder and cornmeal, then swished the liquid back and forth in two shallow pots until it turned frothy.
It was bitter and awful.
When the Spanish arrived, they found that the drink did not taste very good to them either (one Spanish priest noted that it was “loathsome to such as are not acquainted with it”), but was enormously valuable to the natives, who used the cacao beans as money. The conquistadors sent chocolate back to Europe, where it found a use as medicine for upset stomachs and as a stimulant (chocolate contains a chemical called theobromine, which is very similar in its effects to caffeine). It wasn’t until someone in Spain began adding cane sugar to the mix, however, that chocolate drink became palatable to the Europeans, and now cacao plantations were established all over South America, which were worked by imported slave labor.
But it was two discoveries in the 19th century that gave us the chocolate we know today. In 1828, a Dutch chemist named Coenraad van Houten began using a press machine to squeeze the fat and oil out of the cacao seeds before grinding them. At first, this was done simply to enable the beans to be crushed to a finer powder and produce a smoother drink. But it was soon discovered that if one added some of the fat (known as cocoa butter) back into the mixture, it would produce a solid chocolate with a low melting point, which could be poured into molds and cooled to hold any shape. The “chocolate bar” was born.
The second important discovery came in 1875, when Daniel Peter and Henri Nestlé began mixing powdered milk into their cocoa powder. The resulting “milk chocolate” was easier to mold and had a milder and less bitter taste. It revolutionized the chocolate industry. By 1868, the Cadbury Company had been established in the UK, and the Milton Hershey Company began producing milk chocolate bars in 1893.