February 2012

The Story of Chocolate

There’s no denying that chocolate is especially abundant in store displays every February. If you’ve ever wondered where these nougat-, nut- and liqueur-filled delicacies came from, you’re not alone. Satisfy your curiosity by learning all about chocolate.
 
Drinks made from ground cacao beans were important for ceremonial purposes for both the Mayans and the Aztecs, and the beans themselves were so highly valued that they were often used as currency. The Mayans and Aztecs were the first civilizations known to cultivate and regularly use the cacao bean, beginning at least 1,500 years ago. Spanish tongues had difficulty pronouncing Aztec words, so early explorers changed the Aztec drink “xocolatl” to “chocolat.”
 
Xocolatl was a bitter drink not well liked by the Spanish conquistadors, but by adding sugar, the drink became an instant hit in Spain and throughout Europe. As European colonies in the New World grew, so did chocolate production; by the 1700s, powdered cacao beans were finding their way not just into drinks, but also into cakes, pastries and sorbets as well. In 1828, methods developed by Dutch chocolate maker Conrad J. van Houten for separating the fat of the cacao bean and treating the remaining “cocoa powder” with alkaline salts like sodium carbonate allowed for more diverse applications of the ingredient. Joseph Storrs Fry, of England, produced the first edible chunks of modern chocolate in 1849 by combining cocoa powder with sugars and then reintroducing the cocoa butter. 
 
By the last quarter of the 19th century, chocolate making was dominated by the Swiss who made a series of advances to improve the quality and the versatility of chocolate. In 1867, Henri Nestle created powdered milk and Rudolph Lindt developed the process known as “conching,” which makes chocolate smoother and more easy to use in a variety of ways. Another Swiss chocolate maker, Jules Séchaud, developed a mechanized process for creating filled chocolates.
 
How chocolate became the treat of choice for sweethearts on Valentine’s Day is a highly debated topic. Regardless, it’s a sweet that’s enjoyed almost everywhere throughout the world, and one with a history as rich as its flavors.
 
Read more about the past, present and future of chocolate at http://archive.fieldmuseum.org/chocolate/history.html.