Guest Author - Valerie Aguilar
Chocolate is known as the ancient drink of Native American gods. Chocolate is derived from the cacao tree that grows in the tropical rainforests of Central and South America. The modern botanical name for the cacao tree whose fruit is the cacao bean is Theobroma cacao which means food of the gods. Treasured by native Mesoamericans for thousands of years, chocolate is arguably the greatest and most significant cultural gift from the New World.
The use of chocolate dates as far back as 2000 BC to the Mokaya, pre-Olmec Native Americans. The Olmecs are believed to be the first to grow cacao as a domestic crop. Ceramic vessels containing deposits from the preparation of cacao beverages in the Early Formative period, 1900-900 BC have been found at the Mokaya archeological site, Paso de la Amada situated on the Pacific coast of Mexico and the Olmec archaeological site El Manatí on the gulf coast of Veracruz, Mexico. The cacao beans were fermented, roasted and crushed, mixed with water, spices, chilies and herbs then beaten to create a foam and served unheated to the highest echelon of society.
After the fall of the Olmec civilization the Maya settled the region just south of Mexico from the Yucatan peninsula to the Pacific coast of Guatemala. The Maya called the tree the cacahuatquchtl and believed that the cacao tree was a gift from the gods to humankind. During the classic Mayan period around 300 AD there were impressive intellectual, artistic, literary and spiritual advancements. The Maya constructed great stone temples and palaces with pictures and writings describing the cacao pods and trees. Cacao pods symbolized life and fertility to the Maya and was often used in religious rituals. The drink prepared from cacao was used only by the kings and priests of their civilization.
The Aztecs credit the cacao plant to their god Quetzalcoatl, who rode a star from heaven bringing a cacao tree from paradise.The Aztecs later exalted cacao as precious treasure imbibed only by the most elite of the society and was used as a gift to their rulers. They traded cacao as a commodity over great distances and used it as currency.
In 1502 when Christopher Columbus made his fourth voyage to the New World he was the first European to encounter cacao. He actually thought the beans were a type of almond. He encountered a Mayan trading vessel and stole the cacao beans from the longboat because the Mayas seemed to prize them. When Columbus returned to Spain in 1504 he was the first to bring cacao to Europe. He brought back many curious treasures and the modest looking cacao beans were overlooked.
In 1544 Dominican monks brought Mayan noblemen to visit King Phillip in Spain. The Mayans brought vessels of prepared chocolate drink as gifts. Though the drink was not particularly appealing to European tastes, the Spanish added sugar to the chocolate to counteract the bitterness changing the flavor and making it a beloved drink of the aristocracy. For a hundred years Spain did not share chocolate with the rest of Europe.
In 1615 Anne of Austria, the daughter of King Phillip III of Spain, introduced the chocolate drink to her new husband Louis XIII of France and his court. By 1650 chocolate was in vogue in Paris and people were mad for it. Chocolate was considered by the French court to be an aphrodisiac. Art and literature are rife with erotic imagery stimulated by the chocolate craze.
By the mid-1600’s chocolate was no longer a Spanish secret. The first chocolate house opened in London in 1657 and a London bakery introduced cakes and rolls made with chocolate for the first time. From this point on, chocolate production advanced expeditiously spreading all over the world in a multitude of new forms.
Chocolate, known as the drink of the gods, was treasured by Native Americans for use in religious rituals, to honor their rulers and as currency. Highly esteemed by native Mesoamericans for thousands of years, humanity’s infatuation with chocolate has not diminished. Native to the tropical rainforests of Central and South America, the cacao tree bears the fruit from which chocolate is made. The finest chocolate in the world comes from this same region today. Chocolate is possibly the most important gift from Mesoamerica to the rest of the world.