A Pruned History of Cacao and Chocolate
Cacao and chocolate are manifold. Not only in chocolate’s rheology, molten matter to tempered confections back to soft solids again conducted via our own body heat, but in their complexities and tales. We would fail attempting to provide the complete history of chocolate on a single page, but we owe it to the food that inspires us to offer a brief glimpse. We hope that as you peruse here and reflect in your copy of The Chocolate Notebook, you contemplate these various stories, and perhaps narratives missed along the way -- while making room for your own personal history with cacao.
Recent archaeological evidence has pushed back the calendar of early peoples’ cacao-consumption by more than 1,500 years. The discovery at the site of Santa Ana-La Florida in Ecuador shows that cacao was part of the Mayo-Chinchipe culture, in ritual practices and potentially - even more commonly - daily occurrences.
Middle and Late Preclassic (900 BCE-CE 300) periods and beyond
While it is still disputed how precisely cacao traveled between its origin in the Amazon basin of South American to what today we acknowledge as Mesoamerica, it did move (as high as the American Southwest; Chaco Canyon), and some of its most fervent adoption is attributed to the countries in Central America, Mexico, etc. Ancient peoples such as the Olmecs, Toltecs, and Maya all incorporated cacao into their cultures. It is common to find Pre-Columbian era pottery with etchings of the glyphs used to mention cacao, such as found in Maya earthenware.
Late-Classic and Post-Classic periods 600-1500 CE
Cacao domestication takes hold with orchards and value chains of trade and tribute established in modern day Guatemala and southern Mexico. High production rates are achieved.
+ Cocoa used as currency; Jaguar pelts, rabbits, parrot feathers, gold, and enslaved people were some of the things traded for cacao beans. Taxes were paid in cacao.
+ Mexica Aztec soldiers were given cacao for strength in battle.
Cacao is widely accepted as a sacred substance, in many cases compared to corn (maize), and accompanies important life events such as weddings, births, and deaths, through ceremonial rituals.
The Quiché Maya Popol Vuh or holy book included clues that cacao was held in supernatural reverence, the Gods requiring cacao and chocolate. Such as Chac who fed on cacao.
The now famous Dresen and Tudela Codexes feature cacao in their pages.
There is still much discussion in the academic world of how we arrived at the word chocolate, xocoatl (Nahuatl), chocatl or a mispronunciation or error via historical accounts of overheard Mesoamerican dialects and how it was Hispanicized to chocolate.
Other than direct shipments to Europe, cacao journeys to numerous geographic regions acclimated for the growth of other tropical cash crops. For instance, the Portuguese sent to the Dutch, who established it in Ceylon (modern day Sri Lanka), and the Spanish built routes to the Philippines via Acapulco, Mexico.
In a voyage to the New World, Christopher Columbus’ crew touched land on the island of Guanaja (modern day Honduras). Historical accounts recall that it was of little interest to the Spaniards initially, but they recognized the importance for the Indigenous, as they spotted them scrambling for “almonds'' of apparent value. Later presenting the cocoa beans to the Spanish court.
Tenochtitlan. Mexica Aztec ruler Moctezuma hosts Heran Cortez for a feast involving various “courses” of cacao beverages. Warehouses were consistently stacked high with cocoa beans even though the central Mexican region did not have the climate to maintain the cultivation of cacao -- signifying goods exchange.
Monesterio de la Piedra purported to be where chocolate is first made in Europe by nuns in Spain.
Its European expansion
Chocolate has been said to have been introduced outside of Spain through the French Royal Court; via the 1615 marriage of Louis XIII and Anne of Austria in Bayonne. It remained a popular beverage for the courts, and adapted into myriad recipes outside of hot chocolate, however Louis XV thought himself a connoisseur of the drink, crafting his own in the kitchens of Versailles. In the 17th century chocolates are rumored to have tasted “bon bon” very good, a superlative by reduplication. Which probably referred to sweets/confections and later evolved into the terms for the bonbons we know today.
Chocolate houses open in England.
Chocolate is favored for its medicinal properties. Pills are covered in chocolate for palatability.
Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus gave the plant its the scientific binomial theobroma cacao (t.cacao)
Dorchester, MA (New England) is home to the first chocolate factory in the colonies.
With the rise of colonialism, many countries found themselves producing faster and more efficiently than ever before. Global production was met with industrialization in the Global North where chocolate companies grew to meet supply; as did demand for chocolate. Moving it from an almost exclusively aristocratic delicacy to a common man's delight. The simultaneous abundance and accessibility of sugar also paved the way for mass consumerism.
Various inventions in chocolate making lead to cocoa powder (Coenraad van Houten, 1828), milk chocolate (Daniel Peter, 1875), and the conche (Rodolphe Lindt, 1879), all used today.
John Cadbury began Cadbury’s in 1831 with a sum provided by his father. The earliest surviving price list (dated 1842) shows sixteen varieties of drinking chocolate and eleven cocoas.
Fry’s (bought by Cadbury in 1919) introduced the chocolate bar to England. Melted cocoa butter was mixed with cocoa powder and sugar - forming a paste - and pressed into a metal mould.
During this time period It was common for less committed purveyors to sell adulterated chocolates blended with potato flour or brick dust. In search of purity became a marketing angle for others.
Richard Cadbury creates a heart shaped box with rosebuds and cupids for their Valentine’s campaign, connecting romance with chocolate becomes an industry pillar.
It is impossible to miss the connection between England’s Quakers and chocolate. Cadbury in Birmingham. Rowntree in York, Fry in Bristol. Many merchants and apothecarists moved to the confectionary industry for new opportunities.
Hershey’s Chocolate in Pennsylvania, USA is credited as popularizing the mass produced chocolate bar. Today’s current product contains 11% cacao, 1% over the legal limit.
Cadbury Dairy Milk launches with a higher milk percentage than competitors. Until this point predominantly Swiss chocolatiers had controlled the market (such as Nestlé).
Neuhaus is credited with creating the first filled chocolate in Belgium.
Cocoa beans first traded at World Trade Center, NYC.
KitKat was invented at the behest of a Rowntree’s (York, UK) factory worker requesting a more appropriate, portable, every-person's confection.
Alfred Winkler and Max Dünnebier developed and patented a multipurpose machine for “coating sugar bodies, biscuits and other articles with chocolate and the like.” Essentially mechanizing the enrobing process.
American photographer Giles Healey is brought to the Maya city of Bonampak by the Indigenous guide Lacandón. Healey becomes the first non-Maya to see Bonampak's stunning wall-paintings, which reveal new details about Maya civilization. (cacao is found mentioned within the paintings)
The tomb of Maya Priest-king K'inich Janaab Pakal I (funeral CE 683) is discovered and excavated by Mexican archaeologist Alberto Ruz Lhuillier in Palenque, Chiapas, Mexico, marking the first time a tomb was found inside a Maya pyramid. Cacao vessels have been recovered on temple floors and within tombs.
+ Two images of Pakal's mother Sak K'uk' show her being reborn as a cacao tree.
Maya hieroglyphic signs are first catalogued. Unfortunately, unimpeded looting of Maya tombs and other sites begins around this time in the southern lowlands, continuing well into the 1970s.
Mid to late 1980s
French chocolate manufacturing brands begin to bet on advertising chocolate origins on their packaging and in marketing messaging. Brands like Bonnat (considered the first), Valrhona, François Pralus.
+ Italian brands like Domori and Amedei continued this trend in the mid 1990s.
Swiss chocolate company Chocoladefabriken Lindt & Sprüngli, known to many of us as Lindt -- released their 70% Noir dark chocolate bar. It is reported to have been the first to include the cacao percentage on the bar packaging, thus illuminating consumers on a massive scale.
Scharffen Berger chocolates hit the shelves. Based in northern California they are attributed with catalysing the modern craft chocolate movement, inspiring many of the first US based micro-batch chocolate makers to follow suit. (Hershey acquired the brand in 2005).
Chuao in Venezuela becomes the first cacao/geographic/community to receive a protected D.O. denomination of origin.
A handful of dedicated small-batch chocolate makers emerge to meticulously create chocolate from the bean, controlling the entire process from sourcing to roasting, winnowing (dehusking) grinding, tempering and molding, and final sale. The term ‘bean to bar’ was established during these early years but is still not regulated. The movement leans on consumers' shift from anonymous industrially produced products to detail oriented and transparent trade models like the emerging (more established) market for specialty coffee, and consumers’ taste for craft beer, artisan bread and cheese, and fine wines, however contrary to these last mentioned products, cocoa as a crop remains extremely misunderstood and its value chain complex.
2010 and onward
The craft chocolate movement is firmly seeded in events of the past, as well as rooted in changing the paradigm. By the mid 2010s timeframe more than 200 companies are estimated to be operating in the United States, and by 2018-2019 some 350 are noted. Access to information via dedicated blogs and community forums, as well as the availability and affordability of retrofitted and DIY chocolate making equipment allows for democratization of the movement to flourish. Chocolate makers - working alone or with a small team - can produce enough to serve their local market (and others much more); the popularity of farmer’s markets and the farm to table movement in general perhaps led to the quick acceptance of such ventures. Newly marketed bean origins and improved post-harvesting processes in cocoa producing countries provide a cornucopia of flavour nuances, and creative approaches by chocolate makers push the 70% cacao boundary and two-ingredient methodology of the early 2000s. Whether referred to as fine chocolate, craft chocolate, bean-to-bar, artisan chocolate, or small-batch chocolate, growth and a watchful eye from big chocolate conglomerates are certain.
+ Lauren Heineck, one of the notebook’s co-founders likes to call this the post-industrial chocolate revolution.
The Chocolate Notebook® launches its first edition. Lauren and Anelisa Lauri design and market its first copies.
Artist and specialized cacao jewelry metalsmith Cyndi Clement joins the team and a second edition is released with all hand drawn illustrations by her. (Various drawings of hers are also seen throughout this website.)
::Throughout this timeline it is important to note that indigenous foodways have endured. Their legacy and impact to the contemporary state of chocolate is both vital and current. Millions of households rely upon cocoa as an important crop, and chocolate and cacao entrepreneurship in cacao producing regions is part of the lives and communities of many. Traditions, pride, tourism, livelihoods, and future opportunities reside in its sustainability, research, stewardship, and worldwide respect..::
True History of Chocolate, Revised by Sophie and Michael D. Coe
The New Taste of Chocolate, Revised by Maricel Presilla
Geographic and Genetic Population Differentiation of the Amazonian Chocolate Tree (Theobroma cacao L) https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0003311 Cacao domestication I: the origin of the cacao cultivated by the Mayas https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12399997/
The history of the word cacao in Mesoamerica https://www.researchgate.net/publication/231946345_The_history_of_the_word_for_Cacao_in_ancient_Mesoamerica
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