Europe came late to the joys of chocolate. Native to Mexico, Central and South America, cacao cultivation dates to at least 1250 B.C., according to archaeologists.
Mayans grew cacao trees in their backyards and used the seeds to brew ceremonial drinks. In the fifth century, Aztecs consumed xocoatl (bitter water) flavored with vanilla and chili pepper. The highly valued bean served as currency in Aztec society. One turkey, for example, cost 100 cacao beans.
As far back as 1504, Christopher Columbus may have brought cacao beans to Spain from his fourth and final voyage to the Americas.
Hernan Cortes, the Spanish conquistador who subdued Mexico with luck and pluck (and guns, germs and steel), wrote in 1519 that chocolate is “the divine drink which builds up resistance and fights fatigue. A cup of this precious drink permits a man to walk for a whole day without food.”
Cortes brought cacao beans and chocolate-brewing apparatus back to Spain when he returned in 1528. And Dominican friars who introduced native peoples to Spanish royalty in 1544 also gave chocolate to their majesties.
Yet for all this, the great onrush of the continental cocoa craze is often traced to July 7, 1550, and July 7 is even gaining currency as Chocolate Day. So who are we to argue? It’s not brain surgery (though chocolate does have neural effects).
Whatever its original date of introduction in Spain, chocolate did not stay there. Spanish friars spread the gospel of Theobroma cacao throughout Europe as they traveled from monastery to monastery.
Hot chocolate became a hit with French royalty after cocoa enthusiast Marie Therese married Louis XIV in 1660. At the Palace of Versailles, courtiers regarded the drink as an aphrodisiac.
London’s first chocolate house opened in 1657. English cafe society believed the drink to be a cure-all medicine capable of treating tuberculosis. Initially flavored with coffee, wine and pepper, hot chocolate finally achieved liftoff in the early 1700s when English and Dutch impresarios hit on the idea of adding milk and sugar.
It was only a matter of time before mass-production technologies would transform bean-based treats from luxury to everyman staple. A century later, chocolate assumed solid form, courtesy of Fry and Sons.
The British confectioners figured out how to add sugar and cocoa butter to create a malleable paste that could then be packaged as “eating chocolate.” The same standardized processes for extracting cocoa butter to manufacture hard, durable candy are still used today, essentially unchanged since the Industrial Revolution.
Unwittingly, chocolate lovers through the ages embraced a source of natural caffeine that’s packed with flavonoid antioxidants (also found in tea, red wine and tomatoes) known for reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease.
Chocolate continues to fuel daily fits of chemical-based exhilaration for sweet-toothed consumers around the world.