Chocolate is made in large quantities by countries around the world, but it is commonly acknowledged that the finest chocolates are from Belgium. There, a chocolatier is considered an artisan, following centuries-old traditions of chocolate-making to individually create each delicious morsel. Knowing this, it is surprising to most to learn that this epicurean delight has Aztec beginnings.
THE EARLY ORIGINS OF CHOCOLATE— Botanists believe that the first cocoa trees grew wild in the tropical rain forests of the Amazon and Orinoco basins over 4000 years ago. These wild trees were later cultivated by the Mayans when they migrated to the Yucatan in the 7th century A.D. The Mayans baptized the fruit "cacauate" from which later the words "cacao" and "cocoa" were derived. The Cocoa-bean was used as an important drink and all taxes were paid in cocoa beans to the feudal Aztecs. Under Aztec Emperor Montezuma's regime, the drink was for only the male elite and the bean continued to be used as currency. Indeed, a mere 4 cocoa nibs could buy a rabbit and 100 could buy a slave.
"The divine drink, which builds up resistance and fights fatigue.A cup of this precious drink permits a man to walk for a whole day without food."Aztec Emperor Montezuma (circa 1480 to 1520).
THE 16TH CENTURY; AGE OF DISCOVERY—
In the 16th century, adventurous conquistadors searched the New World in the name of the Spanish crown. Among the stories that they reported back were of this strange dark liquid drunk by the Indians, called xocolatl (translated as bitter water). Montezuma himself drank xocolatl as an aphrodisiac. Conquistador Hernando Cortes took notice of the Indians' claim that the bitter drink had sacred and rejuvenating powers and introduced his own version of the drink to King Charles V's court in 1520. Unlike Columbus' earlier ill-received presentation of the cocoa bean and the bitter xocolatl drink in its Aztec form, Cortes caught the attention of the King by adding sugar and vanilla to the drink and relating wild tales of Emperor Montezuma's use of xocolatl and the effects of the sacred drink. The King took this to heart and word of the drink called chocolate quickly spread through Spain.
THE 17TH/18TH CENTURY; CHOCOLATE ARRIVES IN EUROPE—
For the next century, cocoa remained within the Spanish aristocracy due to the extreme expense. Chocolate was prepared as a drink, often with spices added, in convents, monasteries and aristocratic households. Later, with Hapsburg Charles I of Spain serving as the Holy Roman Emperor, news of the drink spread through Germany, Italy, France and England. During much of the 17th Century, Madrid became the center from which chocolate was to captivate Europe. Already known in Flanders and Netherlands, which were part of the Spanish territories, chocolate reached Italy in 1606 by the traveler Antonio Carletti, who brought the drink back to his homeland to mixed reactions. Soon thereafter, Italians quickly embraced this new drink and set up "cioccolatieri", or chocolate makers, throughout Italy and began exporting their chocolate variations to continental Europe. In 1615, the Spanish princess Anne of Austria presented the gift of chocolate in an ornately decorated chest to her betrothed Louis the XIV of France, setting off a craze for the drink among the French. In 1657, the first chocolate-house was reputedly opened in London by a Frenchman, making consumption of chocolate much more popular among all classes and launched the popularity of other chocolate-houses throughout England.
During the 18th century, Europe saw a rapid increase in chocolate consumption. In the early part of the century, only the very wealthy were able to afford it and its heavy taxes. Inevitably, this lead to the use of non-cocoa products, such as starch, cocoa shells and even dust to make a cheaper - albeit deceptive - product. Luckily the charms of chocolate won through. During this age of enlightenment, chocolate was used more and more for therapeutic qualities such as prevention of stomach aches and other illnesses. In 1734, the naturalist Linnaeus classified the seeds of cacao as "Theobroma, or "Food of the Gods." In 1780, the first machine-made chocolate was made in Barcelona. Later, the French Revolution was another milestone in the expansion of chocolate in Europe. The tight grip on society of the church and the aristocracy in Catholic Europe was strongly diminished as a result of the revolution and paved the way for chocolate to become more widespread. Meanwhile, the introduction of chocolate to the United States did not really occur until 1765, when John Hanan brought beans from the West Indies. The first factory was set up by Hanan with Dr. James Baker in Dorchester, Massachusetts in that same year, yet the chocolate was not readily accepted by the American colonists. Baker's chocolate, which exists to this day, is the oldest American chocolate.
"The superiority of chocolate, both for health and nourishment, will soon give it the preference over tea and coffee in America, which it has in Spain."Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826, third President of the United States)
THE 19TH CENTURY; THE INDUSTRIAL AGE—
In 1828, Dutch inventor Hendrik Van Houten patented the Van Houten cocoa press, which helped put the Dutch at the forefront of the cocoa processing. This machine was a crucial invention in the development of chocolates as it helped in the defatting and alkalizing process (also known as "Dutching") to achieve a more pure chocolate. This cocoa press invention helped to reduce the price of chocolate and bring it to the masses. Soon after this development, chocolate began to be made in a solid bar form by recombining the pressed cocoa butter with the cocoa powder to make a solid bar. This gave way for further experimenting, particularly in England where the great Quaker chocolate (Fry's, Cadbury's) producing families promoted chocolate as a "healthful and flesh-forming" drink among the working class, better than the popular Gin. In 1847, the Fry's chocolates factory in Bristol, England molded the first "chocolate bar" while Richard Cadbury is generally considered as the inventor of the first "chocolate box" and later the first Valentine's Day Heart Candy box. By 1850, the duty on colonial cocoa had decreased significantly, due in part to the Quaker industrialist's claims of the merit of cocoa and to the significant volume being imported.
It took another couple of decades before milk chocolate was produced. Milk chocolate was invented in 1879 by the Swiss Henri Nestle and Daniel Peter, another Swiss chocolate manufacturer. While Henry Nestle had been experimenting with condensed milk in cereals, his partner Peter tried combining this new form of milk with cocoa, cocoa butter and sugar. This led to a method for processing milk chocolate. Several other Swiss chocolate makers, such as Francois Cailler and Phillippe Suchard, also actively helped in moving the chocolate production process along.
Another Swiss, Rudolph Lindt invented the "conching" machine in 1879, which greatly improved the quality and aroma of chocolate confectionery. This machine rocks the chocolate for 72 hours and greatly improves the flavor as well as attaining a high degree of smoothness. Prior to Lindt's conching machine, eating chocolate was usually a coarse and gritty experience; now it was a smooth substance, justly called "fondant" or "melting" by Lindt.
Of the American chocolate manufacturers that capitalized on the many European inventions and established a name for themselves at the end of last century (such as Walter Baker and Domenico Ghiradelli), it is Milton Hershey who is probably best known. Hershey, also aptly called "the Henry Ford of Chocolate Makers", brought true mass-production to chocolate through his entrepreneurial vision. Hershey, a caramel manufacturer in Pennsylvannia, was the first to experiment with the use of solid vegetable fats instead of pure cocoa, which raised the melting point of a chocolate bar. This enabled his chocolates to withstand the heat of American summers and shipments to troops during World War II.
THE 20TH CENTURY; CHOCOLATE PLEASURE FOR EVERYONE—
Belgian chocolate came to the forefront of exquisite chocolate making in the beginning of this century. In 1912, the Belgian chocolate-maker, Jean Neuhaus, invented the first hard chocolate shell, also called couverture, which allowed for smooth fillings and creams inside. Previously, fillings had to be of a certain consistency to allow handling and chocolate coating. This development by Neuhaus led to a new culture of Belgian praline making because no longer was the filling required to be relatively firm. With the advent of the hard shell coating, fillings could be of nearly any consistency, ranging from fluid-like cream, soft caramel, light ganache or creamy whipped praline. Each of these various bases were then further developed with flavorings, such as Cointreau, coffee, chocolate and vanilla to create a unique taste sensations. Belgian chocolatiers developed such an expertise with these new creamy whipped fillings that the term "praline" has become almost synonymous with Belgian chocolate. No matter what the type of chocolate, however, throughout the world chocolate made in Belgium is easily recognized for its rich taste and soft textures and delicate, yet complicated, flavors. During the past 100 years, chocolate has been considered as a symbol of freedom and friendship, witness the chocolate symbolizing peace at the end of World War II, and has become a national staple for all people. Chocolate has come to delight everyone around the world and has become an integral part of today's society. The Chocolate industry has reached over $21 Billion dollars in annual retail sales in the United States alone and continues to grow.
The fascinating story of chocolate continues to go on. Now, thanks to developments such as on-line shopping, we can bring your own selection of the freshest Nirvana Supreme Belgian Chocolates right to your doorstep in days.
"Nine out of Ten people like chocolate. The tenth person always lies"John Tullius, American Artist and Cartoonist