Cacao: The Early Years

Chocolate has been around for a long time. Although it is relatively new to most of us, the Indians of Central and South America knew of this treat hundreds of years ago. There is evidence on Mayan pottery that they were consuming chocolate as early as 500 AD. They referred to chocolate as food for the gods, and believed cacao to be a gift from the god Quetzalcoatl. Some historians believe that the Olmec civilization which preceded the Maya may have known of it as well.

The chocolate that these early civilizations knew was nothing like the “Hershey” bar that you and I enjoy today. Chocolate was consumed as a bitter-tasting drink. It was made by grinding cacao beans and mixing the resulting paste with a number of local ingredients. Sometimes mixed with water and sometimes with wine, the drink was often seasoned with vanilla, chili pepper of pimiento. It was thought to cure diarrhea and dysentery, but the real draw was that it was believed to be an aphrodisiac.

The first European to come in contact with cacao was Christopher Columbus.  During his fourth voyage to America in August 1502 his crew encountered a large dugout canoe off the coast of Honduras. It was filled with trade goods including cacao beans. Columbus seized the canoe and its goods and made the leader their guide. Ferdinand, Columbus’ son was surprised by how the Native Americans seemed to value the cacao beans. What he didn’t realize was that the beans were being used as currency. This practice continued all the way up to the last century. Although Columbus probably took the cacao beans that he seized back to Europe, they were largely overlooked by the Spanish court. Twenty years later when the Spanish conquistador Hernando Cortez brought back chests full of the beans they were recognized as being a treasure stolen from the Aztecs. It wasn’t until 1585 that the first official shipment of chocolate made its way across the Atlantic, leaving Veracruz and arriving in Seville.  At that time chocolate was still being served as a beverage, but it wasn’t long before an important evolution took place.  The chili pepper was replaced with sugar, and the new sweetened drink became a luxury very few could afford.

By the 17th century both hot and cold chocolate drinks had become common to all the European nobility. Other countries began to challenge Spain’s monopoly on cacao and began to cultivate plantations in their own colonies both in the Americas and in other parts of the world. More production brought with it lower prices enabling chocolate to be enjoyed by the masses. But the increase in production also required slave labor of both Native Americans as well as Africans.