The history of chocolate can be traced to the ancient Mayans, and even earlier to the ancient Olmecs of southern Mexico. The word chocolate may conjure up images of sweet candy bars and luscious truffles, but the chocolate of today is little like the chocolate of the past. Throughout much of history, chocolate was a revered but bitter beverage, not a sweet, edible treat.
The Olmecs undoubtedly passed their cacao knowledge on to the Central American Mayans who not only consumed chocolate, they revered it. The Mayan written history mentions chocolate drinks being used in celebrations and to finalize important transactions.
Despite chocolate’s importance in Mayan culture, it wasn’t reserved for the wealthy and powerful but readily available to almost everyone. In many Mayan households, chocolate was enjoyed with every meal. Mayan chocolate was thick and frothy and often combined with chili peppers, honey or water.
The Aztecs took chocolate admiration to another level. They believed cacao was given to them by their gods. Like the Mayans, they enjoyed the caffeinated kick of hot or cold, spiced chocolate beverages in ornate containers, but they also used cacao beans as currency to buy food and other goods. In Aztec culture, cacao beans were considered more valuable than gold.
Aztec chocolate was mostly an upper-class extravagance, although the lower classes enjoyed it occasionally at weddings or other celebrations.
Perhaps the most notorious Aztec chocolate lover of all was the mighty Aztec ruler Montezuma II who supposedly drank gallons of chocolate each day for energy and as an aphrodisiac. It’s also said he reserved some of his cacao beans for his military.
When chocolate first came on the scene in Europe, it was a luxury only the rich could enjoy. But in 1828, Dutch chemist Coenraad Johannes van Houten discovered a way to treat cacao beans with alkaline salts to make a powdered chocolate that was easier to mix with water.
The process became known as “Dutch processing” and the chocolate produced called cacao powder or “Dutch cocoa.”
Van Houten supposedly also invented the cocoa press, although some reports state his father invented the machine. The cocoa press separated cocoa butter from roasted cocoa beans to inexpensively and easily make cocoa powder, which was used to create a wide variety of delicious chocolate products.
Both Dutch processing and the chocolate press helped make chocolate affordable for everyone. It also opened the door for chocolate to be mass-produced.
For much of the 19th century, chocolate was enjoyed as a beverage; milk was often added instead of water. In 1847, British chocolatier J.S. Fry and Sons created the first chocolate bar molded from a paste made of sugar, chocolate liquor and cocoa butter.
Swiss chocolatier Daniel Peter is generally credited for adding dried milk powder to chocolate to create milk chocolate in 1876. But it wasn’t until several years later that he worked with his friend Henri Nestle and they created the Nestle Company and brought milk chocolate to the mass market.
Chocolate had come a long way during the 19th century, but it was still hard and difficult to chew. In 1879, another Swiss chocolatier, Rudolf Lindt, invented the conch machine which mixed and aerated chocolate giving it a smooth, melt-in-your-mouth consistency that blended well with other ingredients.
Most modern chocolate is highly-refined and mass-produced, although some chocolatiers still make their chocolate creations by hand and keep the ingredients as pure as possible. Chocolate is available to drink, but is more often enjoyed as an edible confection or in desserts and baked goods.
While your average chocolate bar isn’t considered healthy, dark chocolate has earned its place as a heart-healthy, antioxidant-rich treat.