The earliest evidence suggests that the cacao tree (Theobroma Cacao) originated in the Amazon or Orinoco basin. It is believed that the Mayan and Olmec civilizations of mesoamerica prized cacao beans both as a form of currency and as a food product. The Mayan feathered snake god Kukulkan and the corresponding Aztec deity Quetzalcoatl are often referenced in the story of cacao as the deliverer of the cacao plant to earth from Paradise.Quetzalcoatl is also credited with teaching the Aztecs to ferment, roast and grind the cacao beans to then be mixed with water and chile and in some cases achiote (annato) to produce a bitter drink known as or xocalatl (translated as bitter liquid).
Columbus is said to have brought some cacao beans back from his fourth voyage to the Americas, but nobody paid much attention to them amongst his other finds. The Spanish explorer Cortez was introduced to cacao when he visited Montezuma and saw that the drink was considered a potent stimulant and in some cases an aphrodisiac. Xocalatl is reputed to have been the only beverage that Montezuma consumed – up to 50 gold goblets each day and especially prior to joining his harem. In 1528, Cortez brought the cacao beans back to Spain but its uses were limited until later that century when the drink was used primarily for what were seen as its medicinal properties. Eventually wealthy Spaniards caught on and started preparing their cocoa drink with cane sugar, cinnamon and vanilla to make it more drinkable for their European palates.
The more widespread appreciation of the drink is attributed to an Italian traveller named Antonio Carletti who in 1606 fell in love with the wonderful concoction and introduced it to his Italian brethren among others – teaching the techniques for roasting and grinding the beans as he went.
Traces of this nearly magical cocoa have remained in the scientific name that the Swedish biologist Carolus Linnaeus gave to the plant when developing a binomial system for classifying living organisms. Theobroma cacao maintains the mesoamerican roots of the plant with the word cacao while giving it a place of honor as Theobroma which, in Latin, means “food of the gods” (Quetzalcoatl would be proud!).
In the 18th and 19th centuries industrialization took hold of the industry and many advancements in production techniques resulted. In 1828 Coenraad Van Houten, a Dutch chemist developed a method of removing the cocoa butter from the cacao liquor and producing a fine powder that could be made into a pressed cake. He further added alkaline salts to the powder to make it easier to dissolve in warm water. This ‘dutching’ process also had the benefit of creating a cocoa of deeper color and of less bitter flavor. Further developments such as Rudolphe Lindt’s conching machine, the chocolate bar, milk chocolate and the filled bon-bon transformed chocolate into a more accessible (and affordable) product which soon developed even more widespread appeal.