Written by Grace Mooney, retail store team member
The chocolate we eat today is far removed from the ‘Xocolatl’ that was enjoyed by the Mesoamerican people as a drink for thousands of years, before its introduction into the Western World in the sixteenth century.
Grown exclusively in equatorial climes, the flavour of chocolate varies depending on the variety of tree the beans are harvested from. The favourite bean of the native South American people came from the ‘Criollo’ variety of the Theobroma Cacao genus, however this variety is now largely extinct due to the development of plants with higher yield that are less susceptible to disease. Unlike the blended chocolate that is widely available in the corner stores of the world, it is the single origin chocolate that has been prized throughout history.
The spiced drink ‘Xocolatl’ was a sumptuous mixture of cocoa, honey, vanilla, and spices such as cinnamon and chilli and bears little resemblance to modern chocolate. The addition of milk and raw sugar by the Spanish changed its nature significantly, diluting the strong and bitter flavour of the fermented beans.
Popular legend has it that in 1502, when Christopher Columbus visited Guanaja, one of the Bay Islands off the coast of Honduras, the native population offered him what looked like shrivelled almonds. Unsure and unable to communicate, his Mayan being no better than their Spanish, he was greatly surprised when after a few beans dropped to the bottom of the canoe, the locals scrambled after them “as though they were eyes that had fallen out of their head”. This was the Wests first encounter with chocolate and its impact on Columbus gives no indication of its future popularity.
It wasn’t until sixteen years after Columbus’ return to Spain that Hernán Cortés tasted chocolate for the first time, calling it ‘Cacahauatl’. From this point in history, the race to domesticate and control the cocoa trees began. From Ecuador in South America to São Tomé off the coast of Africa, the spread of cacao trees is world wide, with every region retaining separate flavour characteristics. It was during the period of rapid colonisation that chocolate began to proliferate, and cacao plantations became an important commodity bringing in much needed income as nations expanded into empires.
The spread of chocolate throughout Europe, although slow at first, became an international phenomenon as from Spain it spread to other European courts. Quickly it became an important symbol of status, with ambassadors and foreign nobles singing its praises and creating competition; living representations of the luxury their home country could afford. Much like its place in Mesoamerican society, chocolate was the embodiment of wealth and power and was therefore largely kept within the royal circle for much of its early life within the Western world.
The esteem of and desire for chocolate in Britain meant that chocolate had a higher import tax than both tea and coffee from its introduction in the mid-1660s. Although it had become a part of the court experience during the reign of Charles I, chocolate suffered a dip from 1653 to 1658 while Oliver Cromwell and his puritanical supporters had control of England and eschewed the luxury and decadence that chocolate symbolised. Upon the restoration of Charles II, French and Italian immigrants established new ‘Chocolate Houses’ in London in 1657, allowing the wealthy to experience the delights of what was then also known as the ‘West Indian Drink’.
Hampton Court Palace, the main residence of many kings and queens during this period, was also home to the Chocolate Kitchen and Chocolate Room, which were points of pride for both King William IV and Queen Mary, Queen Anne and King George I. It was in the Chocolate Kitchen that the laborious process of making cacao pods into a hot and frothy drink was performed. Starting by crushing the cacao pods into nibs that were then heated and pounded until they formed a cake. These tablets of chocolate were then melted into hot milk and then served in a special chocolate pot which included a whisk that hung into the liquid from the lid and was used to froth the beverage just prior to serving. It is still possible to recreate this experience today, as brands such as Ibarra still produce these tablets – a normal whisk may be used in place of the purpose specific serving pot.
It was not until 1819, however, that chocolate was converted into bars and was therefore able to be eaten. This transformation and the changes to mass transportation of goods during the Industrial Revolution meant that the commercialisation of chocolate could fully come into effect, with both high-end and cheaper options being available for the general public to purchase. Universally loved today, chocolate has come a long way from its royal beginnings in South America and the befuddlement of Christopher Columbus.
Written by Grace Mooney, retail store team member.
Grace studied at Monash University completing her BA with Honours. In her Honours year Grace investigated the changing food culture in Britain throughout the 1980’s and 1990’s. Although her area of study has primarily been British food history, she also has a special interest in Australian food history and culture.