Discovering Chocolate

The Great Chocolate Discovery

Don Hernán Cortés

Don Hernán Cortés


The story of chocolate begins with cocoa trees that grew wild in the tropical rainforests of the Amazon basin and other areas in Central and South America for thousands of years. The Maya Indians and the Aztecs recognised the value of cocoa beans - both as an ingredient for their special 'chocolate' drink and as currency - for hundreds of years before cocoa was brought to Europe.

Christopher Columbus is said to have brought the first cocoa beans back to Europe from his fourth visit to the 'New World' between 1502 and 1504. However far more exciting treasures on board his galleons meant the humble cocoa beans were ignored.

It was his fellow explorer, the Spanish Conquistador Don Hernán Cortés, who first realised their commercial value. He brought cocoa beans back to Spain in 1528 and very gradually, the custom of drinking the chocolate spread across Europe, reaching England in the 1650s.

London Chocolate Houses became fashionable meeting places for the elite of London society wanting to savour this new luxury beverage.

As the popularity of chocolate grew, so did the number of cocoa growing countries in the world.

Cocoa trees need specific climatic conditions to thrive. Cultivation, harvesting and curing ready for transport to chocolate manufacturing countries is a labour-intensive business, as mechanisation has still proved impractical. (See What is Chocolate)

In 1853, heavy import duties that had made chocolate prohibitive were reduced and chocolate and cocoa became available to the wider population. A number of businesses began manufacturing cocoa and drinking chocolate, including John Cadbury of Birmingham. (See The Story of Cadbury)

Cocoa and the Mayan Civilzation

Aztec & Mayan Civilization

It was the Maya Indians, an ancient people whose descendants still live in Central America, who first discovered the delights of cocoa as long ago as 600 AD.

The Mayan people lived on the Yucatan Peninsula, a tropical area in what is now Southern Mexico, where wild cocoa trees grew. They harvested cocoa beans from the rain forest trees, then cleared areas of lowland forest to grow their own cocoa trees in the first known cocoa plantations.

A drink called 'chocolatl' made from roasted cocoa beans, water and a little spice was their primary use, but cocoa beans were also valued as currency. An early explorer visiting Central America found that four cocoa beans could buy a pumpkin; 10 could buy a rabbit.

Because cocoa beans were valuable, they were given as gifts at ceremonies such as a child's coming of age and on religious occasions. The Mayans had very many complicated religious beliefs with many gods. Ek Chuah, the merchant god, was closely linked with cocoa and cocoa fruits were used at festivals in his honour. Merchants often traded cocoa beans for other commodities, cloth, jade and ceremonial feathers.

Mayan farmers transported their cocoa beans to market by canoe or in large baskets strapped to their backs. Wealthy merchants travelled further, employing porters to carry their wares as there were no horses, pack animals or wheeled carts in Central America at that time. Some ventured as far as Mexico, the land of the Aztecs - introducing them to the much-prized cocoa beans.

The Aztec Empire and Cocoa

Aztec Man

Aztec Man

The Aztecs were an ancient nomadic people who founded a great city in the Valley of Mexico in 1325 - Tenochtitlan. The rich prosperous city and its culture were destroyed by the Spanish in 1521, and was later rebuilt by the Spanish conquerors and renamed Mexico City.

'Chocolatl' was consumed in large quantities by the Aztecs as a luxury drink. The Aztec version of this much-prized drink was described as "finely ground, soft, foamy, reddish, bitter with chilli water, aromatic flowers, vanilla and wild bee honey."

Because of the dry climate, the Aztecs were unable to grow cocoa themselves, so they obtained supplies of cocoa beans from 'tribute' or trade. 'Tribute' was a form of taxation paid by provinces conquered by the Aztecs in wars.

By the time the Spanish invaded Mexico in the 16th century, the Aztecs had created a powerful empire: their armies were supreme in Mexico. Tributes in the form of food, cloth and luxury items such as cocoa beans flowed into Tenochtitlan.

The Aztecs were very superstitious; they had many gods and believed that their world was constantly threatened by catastrophe. Quetzalcōātl, the creator god and provider of agriculture, was associated with cocoa beans. According to an old Mexican Indian myth, Quetzalcōātl was forced to leave the country by a chief god, but he was lovingly remembered by his devoted worshippers who hoped that he would return. Until that time they still had his legacy - the cocoa tree.

When the Spanish conquistador Don Hernán Cortés arrived in 1517 with his fleet of galleons, the Aztecs thought that he was Quetzalcōātl returning. However they were soon to realise that he was a cruel conqueror.

Cocoa Introduced to Spain

In 1517 Don Cortes set sail from Cuba with 11 ships and 600 men, seeking fame and fortune in the "New World". Landing on the Mexican coast near Veracruz, he decided to make his way to Tenochtitlan to see for himself the famed riches of Emperor Montezuma and the Aztec Empire.

It was Montezuma who introduced Don Cortes to his favourite drink 'chocolatl,' served in a golden goblet. Montezuma is said to have consumed several goblets of 'chocolatl' before entering his harem, leading to the mythical belief that it had aphrodisiac properties.

In May 1520, the Spanish attacked a peaceful Aztec festival. Montezuma was killed but by July the Aztecs had forced the Spanish out of the city of Tenochtitlan. After regaining their strength, the Spanish and their allies held the city siege for 75 days and, when it fell, it marked the end of the Aztec civilisation.

Cortes was made Captain General and Governor of Mexico. When he returned to Spain in 1528, he loaded his galleons with cocoa beans and chocolate drink-making equipment.

Once Don Cortes had provided the Spanish with a supply of cocoa beans and the equipment to make the chocolate drink, a Spanish version of the recipe was devised. Monks in monasteries known for their pharmaceutical skills were chosen to process the beans and adjust the drink to Spanish tastes. Cinnamon, nutmeg and sugar were added, the chilli pepper was omitted and it was discovered that chocolate tasted even better served hot.

Soon 'chocolate' became a fashionable drink enjoyed by the rich in Spain. But cocoa beans were in short supply so the special chocolate drink recipe was a closely-guarded secret for nearly a century

Chocolate Spreads Across Europe

Drinking chocolate

Drinking chocolate

English and Dutch sailors didn’t recognize the cocoa beans they found on the Spanish 'treasure' ships they captured as the Spanish returned from 'New World'. The precious beans were thrown overboard by the angry English and Dutch crews, reputed to have thought the beans were sheep droppings.

An Italian traveller, Francesco Carletti, was the first to break the Spanish monopoly. Having visited Central America, he had seen how the Indians prepared the cocoa beans and made the drink. By 1606 chocolate was well established in Italy.

The secret of chocolate was taken to France in 1615 when Anne, daughter of Phillip II of Spain married King Louis XIII of France. The French court adopted this new exotic drink with great fervour. It was considered to have medicinal benefits as well as being a nourishing food.

The supply of cocoa beans to the French market greatly improved after 1684 when France conquered Cuba and Haiti and set up their own cocoa plantations.

In the 17th century, the Dutch broke Spain's monopoly of cocoa when they captured Curacao. They brought cocoa beans from America to Holland, where cocoa was greatly acclaimed and recommended by doctors as a cure for almost every ailment, and also enabled the cocoa trade to spread.

Chocolate reached Germany around 1646, probably brought back by visitors to Italy. The secret of the aromatic chocolate flavoured drinks finally reached England from France in the 1650s

London Chocolate Houses

18th Century Chocolate House

18th Century Chocolate House

When chocolate finally reached England in the 1650s, it was a drink reserved for the wealthy due to the high import duties on cocoa beans. It became very popular at the court of King Charles II.

Gradually it became more freely available. The first London Chocolate House was opened in 1657 by a Frenchman who produced the first advertisement for the chocolate drinks to be seen in London:

"In Bishopgate St, in Queen's Head Alley, at a Frenchman's house, is an excellent West Indian drink called Chocolate to be sold, where you may have it ready at any time and also unmade at reasonable rates."

Fashionable chocolate houses opened where the people could meet their friends to enjoy various rich chocolate drinks, many of which were rather bitter to taste.

The most famous was White's Chocolate House in the fashionable St James Street, opened in 1693 by Italian immigrant Frances White.

The chocolate drinks would have been made from blocks of solid cocoa, probably imported from Spain. The chocolate houses also sold a pressed cake from which the drink could be made at home. Around 1700, the English improved the drink by adding milk.

By the end of the 18th century, London's chocolate houses began to disappear, many of the more fashionable ones becoming smart gentlemen's clubs. White's Chocolate House remains an exclusive gentlemen's club.

England's First Cocoa Makers

Birmingham shop

Birmingham shop

As the demand for cocoa grew, cocoa plantation were established in the West Indies, Asia and Africa and the price of cocoa beans gradually began to fall as greater quantities came onto the market.

However, it was not until 1853 that significant reductions in import duties were made and with the Industrial Revolution making transport easier, chocolate became available to a large percentage of the population.

As more people could afford to drink chocolate, there was increased interest in its manufacture. Some of the earliest cocoa makers were apothecaries (early chemists) who became interested because of cocoa's supposed medicinal properties. They had the equipment to heat, measure and blend the ingredients as well as the necessary skills. Apothecaries founded by Fry's of Bristol and Terry's of York, later became two well-known names in chocolate production.

Other manufacturers became involved in cocoa making through the grocery trade. John Cadbury began by dealing in tea and coffee in his Birmingham shop, while Rowntree's of York was founded by branching out from the family grocery business.