Edible histories: chocolate

Categories: History of food

From Aztec money to Bristolian bars, Mark Riddaway on the rich history of chocolate

As the Aztec empire reached the apogee of its power, 60 great sorcerers were sent forth by the emperor Motecuhzoma to rediscover Aztlan, the mythical homeland of their ancestors. According to legend, the great kingdom of the Aztecs had been founded by fierce warriors from a harsh northern land who had broken clear of their humble roots to become rulers of Mexico.

In a tale recounted by the Spanish friar Diego Durán, when the sorcerers arrived in Atzlan, they were greeted by an ancient but remarkably spry custodian who, rather than admire their wealth, chided them for their effete urban ways: “You have become old, you have become tired,” he said. Why? “Because of the chocolate you drink and because of the foods you eat. They have harmed and weakened you.” Obesity crises are, it seems, nothing new.

Consuming too much chocolate is a mild vice with a rich history—one that began in Mesoamerica around 4,000 years ago, when some unknown genius first took the otherwise inedible seeds of the cacao tree and fermented, dried, roasted and winnowed them, creating ‘nibs’ that could be ground into a powder then added to water to make a chocolate drink.

This magical process appears to have been mastered by the Barra people of the Soconusco region of southern Mexico—a province that would remain famous for the quality of its cacao until deep into the Spanish colonial period. From there, knowledge of chocolate-making spread to the Olmecs of the Gulf Coast, and centuries later to the Maya of Guatemala and the Yucatan Pensinsular. Each of these cultures left behind ceramic vessels coated in the tell-tale alkaloids contained within chocolate.

Rich foam
The oldest surviving visual depiction of a chocolate drink being made can be seen on a Mayan vase dating from around the 8th century AD, which shows a woman carefully pouring a dark liquid from a vessel held at chest height into a large pot on the floor, a method used to raise the rich foam so loved by these early chocoholics.

One Spanish account, published in 1556, described chocolate being made for an Aztec feast: “These seeds which are called almonds or cacao are ground and made into powder, and other small seeds are ground, and this powder is put into certain basins with a point, and then they put water on it and mix it with a spoon. And after having mixed it very well, they change it from one basin to another, so that a foam is raised which they put in a vessel made for the purpose.”

Chocolate was a major driver of Aztec commerce and conquest. Cacao trees don’t grow in the central highlands of Mexico, where the Aztecs built their mighty city of Tenochtitlan, so the cacao consumed there arrived through either trade or tribute. Such was their value, the beans were used as money throughout Mesoamerica.

According to one 16th century chronicle, an Aztec porter was paid 100 beans for a day’s work, while another writer describes the Nicarao people of Nicaragua being charged 10 beans for a rabbit and between eight and 10 for the services of a prostitute, “according to how they agree”.

Happy money
The Milanese chronicler Peter Martyr referred to cacao as “happy money”: to obtain it, “the bowels of the earth are not rent asunder, nor through the ravening greediness of covetous men, nor terror of wars assailing, it returneth to the dens and caves of the mother earth, as golden or silver money doth. For this groweth on upon trees.”

When the Spanish conquered Tenochtitlan, they quickly realised the value of cacao in the local economy, so plundered the emperor’s vast bank of beans. Just about the only people in the New World not conscious of its worth seem to have been the English pirates who prowled the Mexican coastline. In 1579, our nation’s proud buccaneers burned a shipload of cacao, believing themselves to have captured a haul of sheep droppings, and in 1590 set fire to more than two billion beans during a raid on Guatulco.  

The consumption of chocolate was an activity reserved for the upper echelons of Aztec society—a drink that involved the crushing and steeping of pure money was never likely to appeal to the empire’s grafters. It was generally served at the end of a meal, and was rarely sweet—there are some Aztec references to honey being added, but the hot kick of dried chilli was preferred. Other common flavourings included vanilla and the gently spicy petals of a plant known as the sacred ear flower tree.

The first European reviews were far from glowing, the account of the Italian conquistador Girolamo Benzoni being typical: “It seemed more a drink for pigs than a drink for humanity.” But as these early colonists began to adopt the local diet, a version of chocolate more suited to the western palate emerged: served hot, unlike the cold drink loved by the Aztecs (perhaps inspired by Spanish contact with the Mayans, who enjoyed hot chocolate), sweetened with cane sugar and flavoured with Old World spices such as cinnamon. These settlers also developed a swizzle-stick known as a molinillo, which replaced the Aztecs’ painstaking ritual of pouring.

Borrowed from the Mayans
A new word emerged around the same time. In the Nahuatl language of the Aztecs, chocolate was known as ‘cacahuatl’: cacao water. Towards the back end of the 16th century, the word ‘chocolatl’ began appearing in Spanish sources. No one knows where it came from, although one strong theory is that the ‘chocol’ sound was borrowed from the Mayans.

The most appealing explanation for this linguistic melding is that ‘caca’ appears in many Romance languages as a vulgar word for faeces, so the presence of this sound prefixed to the local word for water and used to describe a thick brown liquid was just too much for the giggling conquistadors to cope with.

The first evidence of cacao arriving in Europe dates from 1544, when a delegation of Mayan nobles were brought to the court of King Philip II of Spain bearing gifts from their homeland. In 1585, the first commercial shipment of cacao arrived in Seville. The Spanish aristocracy quickly embraced this exotic new fancy, the drinking of which became a symbol of taste and refinement.

In Italy and France, chocolate was imbued with similar grandeur, a luxury confined to the grand Baroque homes of the nobility. It was the English who first broadened and commercialised its appeal. Cacao began to arrive on these shores after the capture of Jamaica from the Spanish in 1655 provided easy access to established plantations.A newspaper article from 1657 mentions a Frenchman selling chocolate, “an excellent West India drink”, on London’s Bishopsgate Street, and identifies him as being “the first man who did sell it in England”.

A very yappy dog
Samuel Pepys, an excellent barometer of mid-17th century London fashions, seemed much taken with this import. The morning after the bacchanalian coronation of Charles II in 1661, Pepys awoke with his “head in a sad taking through the last night’s drink”. His “morning draft”—doubtless the hair of a very yappy dog—was mixed with hot chocolate, “to settle my stomach”.

Together with coffee and tea, which appeared around the same time, hot chocolate became one of the pillars of the capital’s burgeoning coffee house culture, in which gentlemen gathered to gamble, gossip, imbibe caffeinated drinks and argue about politics. White’s club on St James’s, which remains one of the great bastions of the British establishment, started life in 1693 as Mrs White’s Chocolate House.

Across Europe, discussion abounded around chocolate’s place in the bewildering system of Galenic medicine, based around the body’s ‘humours’. The healthiness or otherwise of chocolate was heavily promoted as a reason to either avidly consume or completely avoid it, an argument that used up millions of words in books and pamphlets (and continues to do so in mid-market British tabloids).

There was also plenty of debate about its supposed “venery” properties, but seeing as the aphrodisiac qualities of the potato were also being openly discussed, this says more about European male obsessions with bodily functions than it does about cacao.

Conserves, creams and wafers
Sweetened drinks remained the primary mode of chocolate consumption, but experiments with its culinary potential abounded, particularly on the continent. The French, it almost goes without saying, were the great pioneers of the chocolate dessert, using cacao to flavour mousses, conserves, creams and wafers, while the Italians seem to have embraced its savoury potential, using it in pasta dishes and meat sauces. The 18th century cookbook of Felici Libera includes recipes for sliced liver in chocolate, and chocolate pudding with veal and marrow.

Modern chocolate began to emerge in 1828, when the Dutch chemist Coenraad Johannes Van Houten patented a machine that made a form of powdered chocolate with a very low fat content—what we would now call ‘cocoa powder’. Two decades later, the Bristolian chocolate firm JS Fry & Sons perfected a way of mixing cocoa powder with sugar and melted cacao butter to make a paste that could easily be cast into moulds to make solid bars.

These were given the decidedly pretentious and un-Bristolian name of ‘Chocolat Délicieux à Manger’ and rapidly conquered the world. Cadbury’s, based near Birmingham, provided stiff competition, launching a market-cornering cocoa powder in 1866 and, in 1868, a box of chocolates decorated with a painting by owner Richard Cadbury of a young girl holding a kitten.

The next great leap forward was driven by a Swiss chemist, Henri Nestlé, who invented evaporated milk, and his compatriot Daniel Peter, who used it in 1879 to make milk chocolate. That same year, another Swiss, Rudolphe Lindt, invented ‘conching’—the process of turning and kneading heated liquid chocolate to develop the flavour and attain a high degree of smoothness.

Make an Aztec weep
While inspiring huge creativity, the inventiveness of these 19th century pioneers would also result in the gradual erosion of the quality of mass-market chocolates, which are now filled with fats, sugars and artificial additives that would make an Aztec weep. Borough Market’s chocolatiers, by contrast, focus on making sweets that connect more readily with this beautiful substance’s rich past.

Colombian Coffee Company will even make you a hot chocolate remarkably similar to that enjoyed by 16th century Spanish settlers—so good, in fact, that even the hardened warriors of Aztlan would struggle to raise a sneer.