Writer Jeannine Luke
The history of chocolate, as far as we know right now, begins with ancient cultures in South America using parts of the cacao pod to make beverages. Chocolate beverages were the only way the plant was used for consumption for thousands of years.
It has been long thought that the first to do so were the Mayans. Recent archeological discoveries now credit an ancient culture in Honduras as the first, as cacao plant residue has been found on their pottery in laboratory tests. They used the fruit of the pod, though, not the chocolate-y beans, with alcohol, so I’m not sure that counts. The Mayans took cocoa trees from the rainforest and planted them in their own backyards & gardens. They used cocoa beans and water to make a bitter drink that also had chile peppers & cornmeal. I recently visited Chocolate: The Exhibition at a museum and was surprised to see how large the Mayan chocolate drink container was. It was more the size of a small planter than the mugs we use. I would estimate it held about a quart of liquid.
Moving on, the Aztecs got chocolate from the Mayans, and because they had to carry it from the Mayan civilization area to their own, it became valuable. So valuable they used it for currency in addition to spicy bitter beverages. In addition to chile peppers and cornmeal, the Aztecs added vanilla beans and black pepper to their chocolate drinks.
Legend has it that Aztec King Montezuma drank 50 cups of chocolate drink every day, and that he served a chocolate drink in a golden goblet to Spanish explorer/invader Cortez (thinking he was a God). The Spanish started shipping cocoa beans to Spain. Soon Europeans added sugar, cinnamon, and other spices to the drinks. Warm chocolate drinks became popular among the elite in Europe. European chocolate was expensive in the beginning, as was sugar, and only the wealthy drank chocolate drinks in the morning. They designed fancy cups for this, often having lids. Unlike the Mayans’, these cups were smaller than the mugs we use, more like a petite, covered tea cup & saucer. In England and Spain, you just had to be rich to drink chocolate drinks. In France, you had to be royalty. The common folk of Europe drank the more affordable coffee, which arrived about 100 years after chocolate.
The Spanish appreciated chocolate drinks as an energy drink. Cortez said “The divine drink which builds up resistance and fights fatigue. A cup of this precious drink permits a man to walk for a whole day without food.” In the 16th century, Catholic clergy permitted liquid chocolate drinks when fasting, when solid foods are not allowed.
In the 1700s, an English doctor named Hans Sloane discovered a chocolate & water beverage while visiting Jamaica, and is reported to have found it nauseating. He is credited with being the first to add milk to drinking chocolate, and brought his special recipe back to England with him. Hans Sloane first sold his “drinking chocolate” in apothecaries, and then Cadbury’s sold it in a tin.
Before becoming chocolate as we know it, cocoa beans are fermented, dried, roasted, and ground. The Industrial Revolution in the 1700s created equipment that processed cocoa in new and inexpensive ways, the advertising industry bloomed, and chocolate found its way to the masses. (This is the nutshell version for now.)
21st Century Hot Chocolate…Bottoms Up!
Unfortunately, many now know hot chocolate by powdered mixes, which often also contain powdered milk. In my opinion this is not hot chocolate’s greatest evolution. Here’s some easy and good ways to make a hot chocolate that will nourish your body and your soul.
Easiest: Heat high quality chocolate milk. The best chocolate milk in the carton is made with whole milk, preferably organic.
Easy: Melt a high quality chocolate bar in a bowl over hot water (or double boiler),. Gradually stir in milk. Taste. Add raw sugar if any additional sweetness is desired. Heat to desired temperature.