The History of Chocolate: From South America To Europe

Cacao was sacred to the Maya in the New World, but it took on a new life when it hit the shores of the Old World. Before becoming the most fashionable drink in all of Europe, chocolate was lauded by royalty, denounced by the church, and embraced in the kitchen.

Christopher Columbus

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In May 1502, Christopher Columbus set out on his fourth voyage to the New World. He brought back many things to Europe: gold, silver, and cocoa beans. But the Spaniards weren’t impressed and cocoa made no impact until Spanish friars introduced chocolate to the Spanish court. At that time no one could have predicted just how much these small cocoa beans would end up transforming Spanish and European cuisine. But two short centuries later, the capital of the Spanish Empire was overrun by chocolate and consuming more than five tons every year. How did the world become crazy about chocolate? 

Chocolate and Spices

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The Maya were among the first to fall under chocolate’s spell. The Madrid Codex, preserved in the Museum of the Americas in Madrid, Spain, contains the first written records of chocolate consumption. The codex states that the Aztec believed that cacao seeds were the gift of Quetzalcoatl, the god of wisdom, and the seeds once had so much value that they were used as a form of currency. The Spaniards even created tables to show the trading value of specific amounts of cacao beans in order to understand the commercial transactions of the Aztec world. As Spanish rule extended through the New World, the importance of cacao extended to the peoples they colonized

The Sacred Recipe Was Handed Down From The Maya

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The secret of preparing chocolate was handed down to the Aztec from the Maya, which  was used in official ceremonies and religious rituals, at feasts and festivals, as funerary offerings, as tribute, and for medicinal purposes. The Maya people gathered once a year to give thanks to the god Ek Chuah who they saw as the Cacao god. Cacao beans were ground to powder, and spices and cornmeal added. This powder was mixed with cold water and the mixture was repeatedly transferred between pots until the top was covered with a thick foam.

It Wasn’t Love at First Sight

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The conquistadors kept their distance from chocolate at first. Chronicler Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo once complained that the lips appear stained with blood after drinking it. The Aztec often mixed it with chili, a flavor that the Spanish palate wasn’t used to. “Chocolate seemed more like a drink for pigs than something for human consumption,” wrote Girolamo Benzoni in his history of the New World. But attitudes changed rapidly when Hernán Cortés returned to Spain from his bloody conquest of Mexico in 1521 and presented the Aztec drink to King Charles V. Although some adjustments to the recipe had to be made . It quickly became a court favorite. It was still served as a beverage, but the addition of sugar or honey counteracted the natural bitterness and chocolate soon became popular.

Chocolate Worshiping

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The laborious task of grinding cacao beans in Spain fell to the molendero, a person who would crisscross the country with a curved grindstone strapped to his back. He used a mortar to crush the tough coating of the beans while kneeling in front of his grindstone. Slowly, and through enormous physical effort, the crushed beans would cohere into a smooth wet substance known as cocoa paste. The late 18th-century Valencian writer Marcos Antonio Orellana invokes explains one of his poems a sense of reverence toward the production of chocolate that has a likeness to that of the Maya : “Oh, divine chocolate / kneeling they grind thee / with hands praying they stir thee / and with eyes raised to heaven they drink thee!”

Chocolate and the Church

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Monasteries were among the major consumers of chocolate, buying the drink in large quantities—but not all religious orders approved. The Cistercian monastery of Piedra, in Aragon, is said to be the first place in Spain where chocolate was prepared. The Jesuits, however, believed that it went against the precepts of mortification of the flesh and poverty. The question as to whether such a rich beverage should be drunk during periods of fasting sparked a theological debate between chocolate defenders and detractors. The 17th-century theologian Cardinal Francesco Maria Brancaccio gave a definitive answer to the vexed question in his now famous decree: “Liquidum non frangit jejunum—Liquid does not break the fast.”

Chocolate And Manners

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Publicized as an exotic drink, chocolate consumption spread across Spain throughout the 17th century. The habit became so widespread that aristocratic women took to drinking it to keep themselves awake through long church sermons—eventually, bishops banned such practices.

Social Gatherings

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Chocolate was popular all year round among the nobility of that period, served in different ways. Every afternoon reception featured a cup chocolate, accompanied by fingers of sponge cake or cookies for dunking. In winter, the beverage was enjoyed at firesides among soft cushions and colorful tapestries. While in summer, it was often served with ice.


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This tiled panel shows servants carefully preparing the chocolate in a series of steps. Produced in 1710 in the workshop of Llorenç Passoles, the tile panel depicts a reception held in the garden of an upper-class household. At the time, chocolate was drunk hot from little cups called jícaras or pocillos, which were served on the specially designed trays known as mancerinas.

Evolution of the Drink

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The 17th-century version of the drink was much thicker than the kind of hot chocolate mostly drunk now, so spillages could often stain clothes and upholstery. Pedro Álvarez de Toledo, viceroy of Peru and first Marquis of Mancera, came up with a solution to that problem in 1640. His idea was making a small tray with a central clamp to which the chocolate pot—the jícara—would be fixed. The tray was called a mancerina in honor of its inventor. Depending on the social standing of the host, mancerinas could be made of silver, porcelain, or pottery.

Chocolate And Pastries For Breakfast

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At the end of the 17th century, chocolate was served in porcelain cups decorated with gold, and there was a sugar bowl to match. The chocolate was drunk either cold, hot, with milk or with eggs, and accompanied with specially made little pieces of toast or sponge cake. Some people drank as many as six cups of chocolate, one after the other, two or three times in the course of a day.

Chocolate Was Considered Healthy

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In the first half of the 18th century, the French traveler and clergyman Jean-Baptiste Labat explored the New World. In his reports, he wrote about the importance of chocolate:

“The Spaniards and other nations that imitate them, make slices of sponge cake or bread which they dip into the chocolate and eat before drinking the rest. This seems a sensible approach: the impurities found in the stomach stick to this bread and chocolate and so pass through the body more quickly.” Labat also described how in the parts of the New World through which he had traveled, chocolate “was used to make small tablets as well as a type of jam or spread. It would be most desirable for the use of this excellent foodstuff to be established here in France, as it is in Spain and throughout America.”

Chocolate’s Expansion

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The rest of Europe, and especially France, soon fell under the spell of the cacao bean. Anne of Austria, the daughter of Philip III of Spain, was the one to start the chocolate craze. When she married Louis XIII of France, she brought with her the royal Spanish custom of drinking chocolate. Later, the wife of Louis XIV, Marie-Thérèse—another Spanish princess with a taste for chocolate—consolidated the supremacy of chocolate in the French court.

Chocolate Became Mainstream

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When the Bourbon dynasty was installed in Spain, its members became chocolate connoisseurs too, especially Philip V and his son Charles III. Charles III saw the potential economic value of cacao beans and allowed a monopoly on their trade between Madrid and Venezuela. He wanted to develop Spain’s economy through trading. As a result, chocolate was available at the tables of Spain’s wider social classes. Grocery shops specializing in products from the Spanish colonies carried the product. The habit of drinking chocolate became widespread.

Chocolate-making Throughout The Years

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The ancient Maya recipe for chocolate-making still thrives in Antigua, Guatemala. Fourth-generation chocolatiers at Chocolate D’ Taza harvest, roast, grind, and dry the chocolate by hand during a four-day process. New industrial methods from the beginning of the 19th century allowed even higher consumption at a much lower cost and soon chocolate was replacing tea and coffee as the drink of choice. But culinary uses for chocolate didn’t take hold so fast. It was only in the 18th century that it began being used in desserts and cakes. In his 1747 book, The Art of Confectionary, Juan de la Mata included recipes for sweets made with chocolate, among which was a novelty. De la Mata called it “foam”—the prototype to chocolate mousse. Chocolate candy bars first began to appear in the 19th century, creating a solid way for the world to go crazy for the humble cacao seed of a south American tree.