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Chocolate Food of the Gods

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By 1502—when Columbus encountered a Maya trading canoe carrying cacao beans along the Caribbean coast—the cultivation and trade of cacao was widespread in Mesoamerica. In fact, cacao was one of the region's most valued trading commodities.
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  • Added: February, 15th 2011
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  • Tags: chocolate, the history, the origins, chocolate production
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Content Preview
The Aztecs were chocolate connoisseurs. The
chocolate drink served at Montezuma's court was
Food of the Gods
only for nobility, warriors or merchants. Spicy and
bitter, it was served cold and frothy. Occasionally,
Origins of Chocolate
honey, corn or seasonings such as peppers, achiote,
By 1502—when Columbus encountered a Maya
and vanilla were added.
trading canoe carrying cacao beans along the
Chocolate Production
The strange-looking tree that is the source of
cultivation and
trade of cacao
was named
was widespread
in Mesoamerica.
cacao, food
In fact, cacao
of the gods,
was one of the
over 200
region's most
years ago by
valued trading
the great
Scholars believe
that the canoe
found by
Columbus was
The bright red or yellow cacao seed pods grow
most likely on
directly from the trunk of the tree. Each pod con-
its way to
tains 30-40 almond-like white seeds in a sticky,
Mexico with a crop of beans that had been
unappetizing pulp that resembles insect larvae.
harvested in Costa Rica.
Scientists generally agree that the native people of
South America were initially attracted to this
Anthropologists have found indirect evidence of
cacao pulp for its sweetness. But no one knows for
cacao consumption as early as 800-1100 BC.
certain what led to the discovery of chocolate in
Ancient sculptures, wall murals, and other art
the bitter and inedible raw seeds.
depict the use and preparation of chocolate. The
hieroglyph for cacao, deciphered as ka-ka-wa,
Cacao trees grow only in the regions within 20
looks like a fish. This symbol has been found on
degrees north and 20 degrees south of the
many vessels and bowls, the oldest of which is the
equator. Scientists believe that the first species of
so-called Rio Azul vessel, which dates to 500
cacao grew in South America; over twenty strains
Excavated from a Maya burial site in Guatemala in
currently grow in Latin America. The ancient
1984, it contains chocolate residue.
Mesoamericans, who domesticated the plant,
cultivated cacao
The Aztec believed that
on the borders
the god Quetzalcoatl, the
of the tropical
plumed serpent and
rainforest or in
gardener of paradise,
small orchards
brought cacao seeds from
within the for-
heaven and taught them
est in an eco-
how to grow the tree.
logically sound
Ancient Mesoamerican
way. Although
cultures used cacao as a
most cacao is
form of currency and as a ritual beverage. Cacao,
now produced
as valuable as gold and gems, was depicted in
in Africa, it is
Aztec paintings as being presented in tribute to
still grown in
the emperor and offered to the dead.
the lowlands of Chiapas and Tabasco in Mexico
where even today it is considered a sacred crop.
Top: Cacao tree.
Top: Balam Ha cacao. This fruit is thought by researcher,
Chocolate stirrers (molinillos). Chocolate, in the form of
Kirsten Tripplett, to be a descendent of the ancient cacao
powder or cakes, is combined with heated water or milk to
used by the Maya. Maya cacao, also known as wild, or
make a drink. The exact history of these distinctive stirrers is
sometimes feral, cacao, is very rare in its old homeland today.
uncertain. They may have been introduced by the Spanish, or
A young student of the Agricultural College in Belize interns
developed in the Spanish colonies. During Pre-Conquest
at the Hummngbird Citrus Ltd. chocolate factory during
times, chocolate was stirred and whipped-up by pouring the
harvest time. Careful removal of low-quality or damaged
mixture back and forth from one pot to another. The
seeds requires steady concentration and attention. More than
molinillo is placed with the decorated head down into the
ten thousand pounds of seeds must be inspected each year.
bowl and twirled between the palms.

Europe Discovers Chocolate
The Spanish got their first taste of chocolate in
the Aztec capital city of Tenochtitlán, located on
an island that is now the site of Mexico City. It is
widely believed that Cortes introduced chocolate
to Spain when he returned to court in 1528. The
Spanish, who controlled the supply of cacao until
the late 17th century, kept its manufacture a court
secret for almost a century.
Sugar was introduced to chocolate production
when the Spanish imported sugar cane from the
Canary Islands and planted it in Mexico. They
also began to combine chocolate with seasonings
such as vanilla, cinnamon, and anise. This form of
chocolate soon became a favorite drink among the
Spanish in Mexico and eventually of those in
Spain. But it remained a luxury item for the
wealthy, as it was heavily taxed.
The use and cultivation of chocolate has contin-
Antonio Carletti, an Italian merchant, is credited
ued to evolve from pre-Columbian times to the
with introducing chocolate to Italy in 1606 after
21st century. Like fine wine and cheese, there is a
visiting a cacao plantation in Central America. He
broad diversity of chocolate varieties, which,
presented a report on it to Ferdinand I de Medici,
combined with production methods, influences
the grand duke of Tuscany. Through the marriages
chocolate quality. Much of today's cocoa is grown
of European royalty and the travels of the clergy,
on plantations. Cocoa farming entails a process of
knowledge of chocolate spread quickly through
hand-harvesting with machetes, fermentation,
the continent. It did not, however, become widely
drying and roasting in order to produce the raw
used until many years later. In 1828, Dutch
material for chocolate. Like coffee, the fermenta-
chocolate maker Coenraad Van Houten fundamen-
tion and roasting processes creates subtle
tally changed the way chocolate was made with his
differences in the flavor and color of the resulting
invention of the cacao press.
chocolate—the longer the process, the better the
flavor and higher the cost. For example, it takes up
Ancient Techniques Key to
to ten days to produce the black gold, oro negro,
Chocolate's Future
required for premium chocolate.
The market for
chocolate is expanding,
and manufacturing
techniques are continual-
ly being refined and
improved. Yet because
the rainforests where
cacao is cultivated are
fast disappearing, scien-
tists are now re-examin-
ing ancient cultivation
methods to better plan
for the growth in demand for chocolate. By
preserving a system of agriculture that has existed
Top: Final fermentation at Hershey Chocolate. A lengthy
fermentation process must occur in order to transform bit-

for thousands of years, cacao, the people who
ter alkaloids and oils into a product with characteristic
grow it, and rainforests can be assured of a
chocolate flavor. Here, a worker transfers two thousand
pounds of fully fermented seeds for the final stage of cacao

viable future.
processing: drying by forced heat.
Hummingbird fruit variation. This image presents some of
the diversity of variety and fruit morphology found in the
Seeds drying. A drying platform outside of the
Hummingbird Citrus Ltd. cacao plantation in Belize
Hummingbird Citrus Ltd. chocolate factory. Here the seed
(formerly owned by the Hershey chocolate company). The
is dried when the rains are few and the days sunny and
cacao surrounds a Postclassic Maya archaeological site being
relatively dry. This method of air drying is based upon the
studied by the Dept. of Archaeology, Boston University.
age-old method of seed drying used by traditional Maya
There are at least fifteen cacao varieties present; most are of
throughout Central America and Mexico.
South American origin.
Supplemental hand-outs at the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology are made possible in part by a generous grant from the William Randolph Hearst Foundation.

Chocolate Food of the Gods



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