The Exotic Origins of Chocolate

Chocolate got its start as a ‘food of the gods'

The 4,000-year story of chocolate is a colorful one that begins with its exotic discovery by ancient civilizations, its use as an aphrodisiac and currency, and the belief that it was sent to Earth by the gods.

Divine Origin

You may not know that chocolate dates back to the Aztec and Mayan civilizations of South and Central America and was believed to be divine by both. I think that most of us would agree that it's still divine. The Mayans discovered what's now known as chocolate in the beans of the cacao tree, and called it a "food of the Gods." Because cacao beans were so valued, the Mayans used them as currency - 100 could buy you a slave, 10 could buy a rabbit, four could get you a pumpkin, and so on.

Even though the Mayan version of chocolate was a bitter drink called xocolatl (a mixture of roasted beans, water and spices), they knew early on that chocolate had soothing, medicinal qualities. So they used it to treat ailments like headaches, colds and the discomforts associated with pregnancy.

Secret Recipe

The imaginative Spanish explorer Hernando Cortés is credited with introducing chocolate to the New World. When the Spanish invaded Mexico in the 1500s, the Aztecs offered Cortés cocoa beans and their version of a chocolate drink. The explorer was hooked: Cortés brought barrels and barrels of cocoa beans back to Spain, hid them in some monasteries, and began to sow them on his own plantations. Clever guy.

Cortés also secretly processed his cocoa beans into a chocolate drink seasoned with cinnamon, vanilla, sugar and even pepper, steadfastly refusing to share the recipe with the rest of the world. This mysterious drink soon became fashionable and sought-after, but was only made available to Cortes' handpicked favorite people - the wealthy Spanish nobility.

In fact, it took almost a century for chocolate to be discovered in other parts of Europe, thanks to Cortés. But as the world power of Spain declined, the secret leaked out and cocoa plantations began cropping up in France, Britain, Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, and Austria.

A Dangerous Drug?

Not everyone accepted the mysterious new drink. The French, in fact, were initially suspicious of cocoa and considered it a dangerous drug. But then Princess Anne of Austria married into the French Court, and introduced drinking chocolate as a fashionable past time. It caught on like wildfire, and everyone partied with chocolate in their cups.

In 1650, chocolate became the rage in London and as its popularity grew, England imposed a tax on chocolate of 10 to 15 shillings per pound. The tax remained in effect for 200 years, yet people continued to eat and drink chocolate.

And we haven't stopped, have we? In fact, if anything, the seduction and popularity of chocolate remains as strong as ever. If history is any indication, we will continue to find chocolate simply irresistible for centuries to come.