As part of what is known as the “Columbian Exchange” (the exchange of foods, animals, plants, etc…between the New World and Europe after Columbus came to the western hemisphere), the first cocoa beans were brought to Europe by Columbus in 1502. There is no indication that he realized the monetary or culinary importance of his discovery, and no evidence that he ever tasted a glass of chocolate. He went to his grave 4 years later in 1506 not realizing the great implication of these beans, which he described as “almonds.”
Nothing was done with cocoa beans, however, until the third decade of the 16th century, after Hernando Cortez had been served a frothy, bitter liquid of ground cocoa beans, chile pepper and water by the Aztec king Montezuma. The recipe was sent back to Spain and, with the addition of some sweetener (honey, or possibly cane sugar), and the newly discovered vanilla plus some cinnamon and black pepper, it became a national obsession. In fact, the recipe was kept an official national secret for nearly a hundred years. People were so wild about chocolate that the Catholic Church had to investigate whether or not it was sinful to overindulge in the drink, and if it was acceptable to imbibe the drink during fasting days – during Lent, for example. 16th century European clerics condemned chocolate as sinful and thought it was an aphrodisiac and could cause promiscuous sexual activity in normally upright people.
Chocolate first gained popularity in Europe as a medicine. According to the theory of “humors” in the human body causing illness and disease (a system of medicine that went back to the ancient Greeks), chocolate was classified as containing “cool” and “humid” qualities and could be used as a fever reducer, or to reduce discomfort in hot weather. Today. Much has been written about the medicinal/health qualities of chocolate – dark chocolate, that is. The historic circle has been completed.
In 1579, as if to confirm that the rest of Europe remained ignorant of the value and uses of chocolate, an English pirate ship captured a Spanish vessel, filled with cocoa beans, on its way back to Spain. They burned the entire ship and its cargo because they were under the impression that they were sheep droppings. Evidently, the Spanish (and Portuguese as well) were doing a good job of keeping the lid on this secret. It was not until well into the 1600’s that the news and taste of chocolate spread throughout Europe.
Cocao beans were so valuable that they were used as money by the peoples of the Maya and Aztec empires. They considered them as valuable as gold, and they were easier to carry around and use as payment when shopping or trading over long distances. Purchases were priced by the bean: a rabbit cost 8 beans; a slave cost 100 beans, 4 beans could buy a pumpkin and so on…
The Mayan people had established the first cocoa plantations in about 600 B.C.. And it was Hernando Cortez who was the first person to bring chocolate to Europe. He also introduced it to Africa, thus creating an industry which is still in existence today on that continent. In fact, 70% of the world’s supply of cocoa beans comes from West Africa (notably the Ivory Coast and Ghana). The Ivory Coast produces 40% of the entire world’s supply of cocoa beans! Brazil is the main supplier of cocoa beans to the United States.
The cocoa tree grows only in a narrow band around the center of the Earth, about 20 degrees latitude north and south of the equator.
Wild cocoa trees originated in Central America, in what we today know of as Nicaragua, about 4,000 years ago. Birds, monkeys and other animals were the first “chocoholics,” discovering the fruit of these trees and spreading their seeds, via their droppings, throughout Central America. The Toltec peoples of Central America used cocoa branches during their religious ceremonies, and often ended these ceremonies by sacrificing chocolate colored dogs to their gods. The Itza people of Mexico mixed chocolate and human sacrifice. Before sacrificing a victim to their goddess of food and water they would prepare the individual by having him/her drink a goblet of frothy chocolate. This would make the victim more holy, or acceptable, to the goddess because they believed it turned the victim’s heart into a cocoa pod. The victim’s heart was then torn from their chest and offered up to the goddess in hope that she would aid the Itza people in their agricultural pursuits.
The Aztec king Montezuma II consumed massive quantities of liquid chocolate mixed with honey and spices (such as ground and dried chile pepper). As a matter of fact, it was said that Montezuma drank NOTHING but chocolate, up to 50 “flagons” (a “flagon” is roughly equivalent to a medium sized pitcher today) a day. Whenever he drank a cup of chocolate (“xocoatl” in their language, pronounced like this, “chocolatl,” in English) he drank it from a golden goblet, and when he was finished he would walk to the balcony of his palace which overlooked one of the many lakes surrounding Tenochtitlan and tossed it into the water. Then another golden goblet filled with the beverage was brought to him and the process repeated itself over and over, throughout the years of his rule. He never drank from the same goblet twice. For decades after the Aztec empire had been destroyed, divers were still searching for and finding these golden relics of the heyday of the Aztec empire and the reign of Montezuma.
The Aztecs believed that chocolate had aphrodisiac powers. Before Montezuma would enter his harem, he would prepare himself by downing a ceremonial goblet full of the beverage.
AND REMEMBER: SAVE THE EARTH! IT’S THE ONLY PLANET WITH CHOCOLATE!