Considering how many enjoy treat today (not to mention how much they enjoy it) most people know little to nothing of its origins and the stages it went through before becoming the treat we know and love today. It is past due for a correction. We need to at least give you an abbreviated history of chocolate and share some of the more intriguing innovations developed along the path to today’s treat.
Anthropologists have found evidence of chocolate production as early as 1900 B.C. in pre-Olmec cultures, living in what is now Mexico. These peoples began a 4,000-year experiment, which continues today, with the cacao beans they found in their tropical rainforests - fermenting, roasting and grinding the beans into a paste. It began as a bitter chocolate drink but eventually people would begin mixing it with water, vanilla, honey, and chili peppers among other spices to create a more agreeable drink.
As you might expect, with such a long history the name we have given to chocolate also varied through the ages. The Mayans and Aztecs called their chocolate “xocoatl” and “cacaua atl” respectively, and believed it possessed mystical and spiritual qualities. Typically, in these two cultures xocoatl was a drink reserved for the elite and newly married couples. In Latin, chocolate is “theobroma cacao,” which directly translates to "food of the gods." Its translation speaks to how highly regarded it was by the Columbus and the Spanish Conquistadors who discovered it in the early 1500’s. With this in mind, it is not surprising that the scientific name for the cacao tree today is theobroma cacao.
The bitter style of the Aztec drink did not sit well with the Spanish Conquistadors when they encountered it in Central America.
When they brought it back to Spain in 1528, the Spanish began to mix the raw cacao beans with cane sugar and cinnamon. These added ingredients made it more pleasurable for the European palate and for nearly 100 years the Spanish kept chocolate a secret. Few people outside of the country knew how delicious it was but once the secret did escape, many of Europe's elite wanted the cocoa drink for themselves.
Chocolate remained an aristocratic delight until nearly 190 years ago when a slow but a deliberate series of innovations took the crucial steps towards the chocolate bars we recognize today. The first came about in 1828 when the Dutch chemist Coenraad Johannes van Houten developed the cocoa press to squeeze the fatty cocoa butter from roasted cacao beans. Later in 1847, Joseph Fry & Sons, of England, created the first solid edible chocolate bar from cocoa butter, cocoa powder and sugar.
In 1875 Daniel Peter of Vevey, Switzerland dreamt up a milk chocolate recipe, incorporating the recently invented condensed milk, which became an instant success. Condensed milk was the missing ingredient in Daniel’s formula, which his friend and neighbor, Henri Nestlé, had just invented. They quickly collaborated to form Nestlé and legend has it that Daniel Peter worked in the nestle factory into his 90's. In 1879 Rodolphe Lindt’s invention of the conching machine produced chocolate with a velvety texture and superior taste. These advances and others allowed for the mass production of smooth, creamy milk chocolate on factory assembly lines, dropped the price of chocolate and enabled the masses to taste chocolate for the first time.
These advances have opened up the world to chocolate and made the sky the limit for chocolate makers. Across the world, chocolate makers continue experimenting with the cocoa bean. From Gharidelli in San Fransisco, to Rodolphe Lindt in Switzerland, to Milton S. Hershey in Pennsylvania, and Félix Bonnat in France. These are just some of those who have contributed to the chocolate we know and love today. Their innovations and passion planted the seeds for today's chocolate makers.
These trailblazers of the chocolate community paved the way for the craft chocolate makers of
today. We appreciate chocolate’s rich past and the dedication shown through the generations in every morsel we taste. Understanding its past also helps move us forward, constantly innovating to create chocolate recipes which are more enjoyable than yesterday’s.
Today’s chocolate innovation is evident in chocolate makers’ choice in ingredients, their choice to blend modern and traditional methods of cooking and manufacturing techniques. You can taste their hard work, passion, and innovation standout in their delicious treats. I encourage you discover and taste as many craft bars as you can find; discover their flavor notes, textures, and other nuances.