We think of chocolate in terms of bars and hot drinks, but there’s much more to the treat than just the bliss you feel when it hits your taste buds. In fact, if you were experiencing that same thrill centuries ago, the chances are that you’d have been royalty!
Chocolate is rich, sometimes dark and hardly ever bland. Below you can find a GIF exploring its history, and a huge piece below that if it's sparked your appetite - for knowledge, that is.
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The First Record of Chocolate
The story begins in Mexico, or as they called it back then, “Mesoamerica”. As far as recorded history goes, this was the only place chocolate existed at the time - but people may not recognise it as the chocolate we see today.
Exclusively found growing on the cacoa tree - yes that’s spelt correctly, cocoa is a little different - the bean of the same name was frequently harvested by people in the regions blessed with these trees. This luxury was reserved largely for countries near the equator; one of the few areas with the necessary fine tuned environment needed for them to grow.
At this time, these cacoa beans were largely ground and mixed with chilli peppers and cornmeal - and then drank! It may be hard to believe, but the solid form of chocolate that we know and love didn’t come to be for another few centuries. Even relaxing hot chocolate wasn’t around, as this beverage was considered to be quite bitter. That didn’t stop the Mesoamericans from believing the beans were sent from the gods, though. Specifically, a feathered serpent god called Kukulkan.
This bean was eventually embraced by the Aztecs too, and the respect of the precious cacao certainly didn’t falter. In fact, the status of the drink was elevated, becoming the must-have treat of the elite. Such was their value that they were even used as currency, and awarded to soldiers for their valiant efforts in war.
While we have been limited to Mexico so far, our story soon goes global, thanks to a certain explorer called Christopher Columbus and his band of explorers.
From Mexican Royalty to Spanish Romantics
After the famous Italian landed in Mexico, he knew he had stumbled across something special. He took an collection of the beans back to Spain, and with that, changed the face of European confectionery forever.
The export proved to be incredibly popular when it was introduced, and it started to develop some of the characteristics that we now associate with chocolate. For example, Spaniards believed the drink was an aphrodisiac that could help improve sexual libido among those that drank it.
Many believe that this led to the romantic association that chocolate often has today, and why we get our lovers some for Valentines Day, and not plums or something else. It was also largely used as medicine; if you’ve ever turned to a Dairy Milk or Galaxy when you’ve been feeling crappy, we’re sure you’ll approve.
The Chocolate Taste we Love Takes Shape
While a blind cacoa taste test may have fooled a lot of us living in the 21st century, it was throughout these 1500’s that it started to become more like the taste we know and love today.
Long gone was the bitter taste of the cacao, as it was soon mixed with vanilla to become much sweeter and more enjoyable. This flavour change meant that it soon started to lose it’s brand as a remedy, meaning Calpol is still the only medicine around that actually tastes nice.
Chocolate started to spread like wildfire, but remember, this was still only in liquid form. Indeed, it remained that way for decades, until a man named Coenraad Johannes van Houten entered the scene. Let’s go to...
A Pretty Solid Development
Armed with his newly-invented cacoa press, the Dutch chemist was the first reported individual able to extract the cocoa butter from the cacao bean. This involved taking the unrefined cacao beans and pressing it to such intensity that a butter was extracted. That product is considered responsible for the classic chocolate taste, and so is used to make the chocolate bars and eggs we know and love today.
Unfortunately, some of the manufacturers behind those chocolate treats like to replace this cocoa butter with cheap vegetable fats, meaning the chocolate is not only more unhealthy, but in fact less chocolate-y. Speaking of manufacturers...
Cad-burying the Competition
The namesake of the company, John Cadbury, was a celebrated confectionery seller. After decades selling the likes of tea and coffee, he eventually teamed up with his brother Benjamin to form Cadbury Brothers. While these are the big boys on the brown block today, it was actually their rival Fry’s that ruled the scene at the beginning.
This rivalry saw Cadbury teeter on the edge of collapse, but as the owners sons George and Richard took the reigns of the company, they understood where the market was heading. With this, they prioritised the production and sale of chocolate over tea and coffee. An increased focus brought with it additional resource and development attention, and their first major breakthrough - an improved cocoa press and chocolate flavour.
All these efforts resulted in the production of Fancy Boxes, a decorated box of chocolates in the shape of a heart. Marketed around Valentines Day, they proved to be a huge hit and are also to thank for some of the romantic connotations the food now has with romance.
However, across the water in Ghana, other major shifts were taking place.
The Rise of Ghana/Fall of Mexico
During the centuries that the cacao bean was exclusive to the countries around the equator, production was stable and sustainable. However, the explosion of popularity across Europe meant that power shifts were soon to come, as with demand there must always be supply.
Ghana saw this as a great opportunity to become the largest provider of cacoa around, and put a large amount of resources into becoming just that. Soon, Mexico had lost their association with chocolate and this West African country was now considered not just the most prolific supplier of beans, but also the supplier of the best beans.
The Birth of Easter Eggs
Yes, Cadbury’s were on the up, but Fry’s weren’t giving up yet. In 1873, they then moulded chocolate into the shape of an egg and targeted Easter in much the same way Cadburys targeted Valentines Day with their offering.
Now, Easter eggs are an icon of the public holiday and are consumed in thousands upon thousands by even non-Christians. So much so, that enough Cadburys eggs are now made in Birmingham every year that you could make a pile ten times larger than Mount Everest if you stacked them all on top of each other.
The Milk Chocolate Miracle
White, dark, hazelnut - there are many different types of chocolate, however one reigns supreme over them all.
In the late 1800’s, Daniel Peter combined Nestle’s milk powder to melted chocolate while in Switzerland. He found that the creamy flavour complimented the taste perfectly, and thus began a long tradition of combining the two - aka, milk chocolate. This played a major part in Switzerland quickly establishing itself as the star of the chocolate world.
"Chocolate is a Fighting Food!" - The Treats Role in WWII
In the early years of World War 2, the American army added three four-ounce chocolate bars to the D-ration kit for its soldiers. This presents a great example of how the perception, and availability, of chocolate had changed over the years.
In Mexico, the kings and commanders that sent people to war were part of the elite few that could enjoy the fruit of the cacao tree. Years later, in the trenches of France, it had become so commonplace that even the soldiers fighting those wars considered it an essential.
Today, it is impossible to imagine a world without chocolate (or is that just us?).
It is everywhere, from the pantries of the lower class that can now afford to buy it, to all over the silver screen in cultural phenomenons like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory; we can even 3D print the stuff! This little guilty pleasure of almost everyone around the globe has a rich history and an even richer taste.
So… who else is craving for a piece suddenly?
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We’ve even heard that there are companies who deliver the stuff right to your door in hampers, full of the stuff! Rumours are this company are pretty good at it...