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ow that we’re in the heart of Hispanic Heritage Month — which runs from September 15 to October 15 — it’s a good time to ask ourselves where chocolate came from, because the tasty treat has Hispanic origins. Today, you might spend $7 or more for a piece of confectionary chocolate, but in the old days, before the Age of Exploration, cacao, a key ingredient in chocolate was used as a form of currency.

Chocolate has a long history
As I noted in my article 10 Things You Can Do With a Ton of Chocolate, the pre-Columbian Mayans bartered chocolate for maize (i.e., corn), tobacco and clothing. Cacao was so valuable in those days that Aztecs and others were known to forge them.

Chocolate — or cacao, if you will — comes from the cacao tree, also known as the Theobroma cacao, which grows in hot and humid climates. So, please don’t try to grow a cacao tree in North Dakoda.

A mature cacao tree can grow up to 40 feet tall, have leaves that measure up to 12 inches long, and produce up to 70 fruits annually.

The ancestors of the Olmecs — an indigenous culture that lived in the present-day Mexican states of Veracruz and Tabasco — were probably the first to harvest those fruits to make chocolate, around 1900 BCE.

Olmecs’ chocolate wasn’t like Hershey’s Kisses®
But the chocolate that the Olmecs and other Mesoamerican cultures made was a lot different than the Hershey’s Kisses® and Kit-Kats that we know today.

The Olmecs fermented, roasted and ground cacao beans to make beverages, rather than candy bars. While sugar is a common ingredient in chocolate today, the Olmecs rarely used sweetener. However, the Olmecs were known to put chili and herbs in their chocolate drinks. It’s thought that the Olmecs used cacao to create a ceremonial drink, but archeologists can’t say for sure.

Mayans, Aztecs, Incas, use chocolate
Later, the Mayans — who inhabited Mesoamerica from 1800 BCE to 1500 CE — incorporated chocolate into their daily live. They even used cacao to trade with the newly-arrived Europeans. Meanwhile, the Aztecs — 13th Century CE to 1521 CE — ordered the civilizations they conquered to pay them cacao as tribute. The Incas, who lived in present-day Peru from 1200 CE to 1572 CE — also prized cacao and likely traded gold with the Aztecs to obtain it.

Cacao was absent from Europe
Chocolate was unknown in Europe until the Age of Exploration. Christopher Columbus found cacao on his fourth mission to America, but no one in Europe thought the bean was notable at the time.

But by the 16th century, a Spanish missionary named Jose de Acosta noted that “the Spaniards are greedy of this chocolate,” according to The World Atlas of Chocolate. Acosta also noted that the chocolate drink was “very much esteemed among the Indians.”

Cortés causes havoc in Mexico
In 1519, the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés reached the outskirts of the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan, now Mexico City. The Aztecs likely believed Cortés and his men were gods, so they initially welcomed them. The Aztecs served Cortés a chocolate, frothy drink. Cortés took a liking to it, and called it “the divine drink which builds up resistance to fatigue,” according to Wired.

The story between Cortés and the Aztecs did not end well. Seeking more gold than the Aztecs gave him, his men ransacked the city for treasures, then tortured and killed its inhabitants.

Chocolate becomes industrialized (uses slavery)
Chocolate soon made its way to Europe. In 1760, Chocolatierie Lombart, a French firm, claimed to be the first chocolate company. In 1815, Dutch chemist Coenraad van Houten created a press to remove about half of the natural fat — cacao butter — from chocolate liquor, which made the chocolate cheaper to produce, and more consistent in quality.

Van Houten’s work was instrumental to the transformation of chocolate to its solid form. Soon after, in 1847, Joseph Fry learned to make chocolate moldable by adding back melted cacao butter into the mix.

Then, in 1875, Daniel Peter invented milk chocolate by mixing a powered milk developed by Henri Nestle with the liquor. Peter’s invention was followed by Rodolphe Lindt’s invention of the conching machine, which improved the consistency and texture of chocolate

In 1893, Milton Hershey, another familiar name in the world of chocolate, purchased chocolate processing equipment at the World’s Fair, and began making chocolate.

John Cadbury opened a tea and coffee shop in Birmingham in 1824. In 1893, William Cadbury, a grandson of John Cadbury, urged the end of the use of slavery in the product of chocolate.

Sadly, almost 200 years later, slavery continues to be part of the production of chocolate in many countries.

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