Chocolate Education: Chocolate, Then & Now
The chocolate tree has a rich cultural history. As we head into the holiday season we wanted to share with you some of those stories that took chocolate from its humble jungle origins to the center stage of culinary culture. We hope you enjoy!
Cacao originated in the Amazon region of South America and we can date it’s consumption there to over 5000 years ago. To appreciate the influence of this remarkable plant, you have to remember that from ancient times cacao beans were central to both the religion and the daily life of South American and Mesoamerican cultures. The tree was central to their origin myths, and they worshipped it as a divine plant. A form of chocolate drink was used as a sacrament in religious rituals representing the blood of a divinity — not unlike the way wine is used in the catholic communion.
The Mesoamericans also used cacao beans as money. Paleo Economists have shown that each bean was worth, in today’s terms, about a dollar apiece. Spanish conquistadores ransacking Montezuma’s treasury in the 1520’s found that the emperor’s Fort Knox contained not gold or silver, but over one billion cacao beans. Kakowa, the one original word for the chocolate tree was hard for Spaniards to pronounce, so they called it Cacao. Later on when the English encountered it they called it Cocoa.
Drinking chocolate first reached the Western world in the 1500’s, and with the addition of sugar, quickly became all the rage for the few who could afford it. Chocolate houses sprang up throughout Europe, and by 1600, if you were anybody important in Madrid or Amsterdam, Paris or London, you’d go to a Chocolate House to enjoy the stimulating properties of this novel brew. Over the coming centuries, coffee and tea would also be popular, but compared to chocolate, they are both very late to the party. Chocolate’s energizing and mood-improving effects were so well known in Europe that when scientific names were given to plants in the mid-1700’s, the tree was awarded the title Theobroma — Greek for food of the gods. So, if chocolate was so venerated in European and in Mesoamerican history then, what happened?
Stay tuned for our next blog post!