Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Bean There, Done That

By Alli Sinclair

As a writer, I take research very seriously. I’ve invested years sampling this particular invention so I can present today’s post with good authority—chocolate.

Three thousand years ago, the people of Central and South America, and in particular, Mexico, cultivated theobroma cacao, the original cacao bean, and used it in religious ceremonies and for medicinal purposes. They found the bean could combat fatigue, not unlike the effects of coffee. For intestinal and stomach problems, a chocolate drink was mixed with the bark of the silk cotton tree. If fever and fainting were the problem, then patients consumed eight to ten cacao beans mixed with dried maize kernels.

Archaeologists in Puerto Escondido, Honduras, discovered the cacao had been cultivated as far back as 1100 to 1400 B.C. when they found a white pulp from the cacao bean in a vessel and, later, discovered the ancient Hondurans used cacao pulp as a sugar fermented to create a type of alcoholic drink. 

The Aztecs didn’t use chocolate in cooking, even though many people think they did. According to food historians, the Aztecs prepared their chocolate drink by grinding roasted cacao beans and mixing them with water and adding chili, maize, or honey. Sometimes they added flowers, and consumed the drink cool, not hot. Coriander, sage, and vanilla (extracted from the pods of orchids) were also favorite additional flavorings.

The Mayans of the Yucután drank their chocolate hot, a precursor to today’s popular drink. In 1556 A.D., a conquistador published only as the Anonymous Conqueror documented how Mayans prepared the drink. They mixed the powder with water and transferred the liquid from one basin to another so the foam rose to the top of the vessel. They stirred the drink with gold, silver, or wooden spoons and kept their mouths open wide to let as much foam as possible pass between their lips. The conquistador witnessed people drinking this concoction in the morning then walking for miles for the remainder of the day, not stopping for more food. (Probably trying to burn off those calories, methinks.)

Conquistador Francisco Hernandez sampled a variety of chocolate drinks on his travels—green cacao pods, honeyed chocolate, flowered chocolate, and a bright red chocolate made from the huitztexcolli flower. And according to accounts by the Spanish officers who dined with Montezuma in 1520 at Tenochtitlan, the king enjoyed drinking chocolate from cups made of pure gold.

After the Spanish conquistadors made their mark in the Americas, they imported chocolate to Europe. Only the wealthy could afford it, and to keep up with demand, the Spanish fleets enslaved the Mesoamericans (people of Aztec and Mayan descent) to get them to produce more cacao. Eventually, the Spanish grew their own beans and used African slaves as labor.

By 1657, a Frenchman opened London’s first chocolate house. And in 1689, Dr. Hans Sloane discovered a drink made from chocolate in Jamaica. The bitter taste didn’t appeal to him, though, so he mixed it with milk. He sold the powdered chocolate in tins to the Cadbury brothers in 1897 and, in my humble opinion, the world changed for the better. The Dutch van Houten family created what is known as “dutched chocolate”—a method that squeezes out cocoa butter, enabling the chocolate to be set hard in molds. Yes, history’s very first chocolate bars! But it wasn’t until the Industrial Revolution that these little bars of joy saw mass production and became available to the general populace.

In 1899, Jean Tobler opened up a chocolate factor in Berne, Switzerland, changing the course of chocolate once again. He invented the modern Toblerone by combining almonds and a unique blend of cocoa. My mouth thanks you, Mr. Tobler, but my waistline doesn’t!

A Mr. Rudolfe Lindt thought adding cocoa butter back into the cocoa mass of crushed and ground beans might be a good idea. He did this, lengthened the kneading process, and a velvety smooth and very shiny type of chocolate was born. Mr. Lindt, you are to blame for those extra hours I should be pounding the pavement!

So next time you wander into Starbucks for a hot chocolate or a mochaccino, perhaps pause and give thanks to the clever Mesoamericans for discovering a little thing that has brought joy to many over the centuries.


  1. Nice little history here! You did a great job researching. I love chocolate. As a child, we used to go to a French bakery that sold fresh-baked bread and freshly made chocolate eclairs. The eclairs were a treat if we behaved while we got the shopping done. It was a good motivator!

  2. Oh.... eclairs! One of my very favourite treats. Yes, I can see why it would be a good motivator to behave! Thanks for stopping by, Jenni!

  3. Aside from the obvious, there is so much to love about this post. Words like 'enslaved', 'velvety' and 'conquistadors' made it well worth eating...er...reading.
    Thanks Alli x