Guest blog by Sam Hadadi,
Rich, seductive and melt-in-your mouth delicious, it’s little wonder that chocolate has long been known as the “food of the gods”.
As the ultimate comfort food, our favourite treat pick-me-up when we’re feeling down and even a known aphrodisiac, chocolate is the Lucy Bee go-to to solve all of life’s problems.
In fact, it’s been the world’s most precious food for around 4,000 years - and it was once so prized that it was even a form of currency. From the ancient Aztecs to the Mayans and even the Spanish conquistadors, chocolate is steeped in history.
If you’re a fellow chocoholic, then this post is the one for you. Celebrating all that there is to know about our beloved food, here’s a one-stop (chocolate) shop where you can learn everything there is to know about our favourite food, from its humble beginnings as a delicious drink, to its later life as a chocolate bar. We’ll even throw in some chocolate facts for good measure….
To learn all about the joys and wonders of chocolate, then we need to take you way back in time. 4,000 years ago, to be (almost) precise
As you now know, chocolate was first consumed as a bitter drink rather than the sweet bar we know today.
However, it’s pretty tricky to pin down exactly where and when our love for chocolate began, with many scientists disagreeing on this one fact. What we can be sure of is that anthropologists have found evidence of chocolate (or at least in its liquid gold form) as early as 1100BC in Honduras1. Researchers discovered cacao residue in pottery vessels, which they believe was served as a beer-like drink – way before chocolate fever swept the world.
Soon after this, it seems that chocolatey drinks were embraced by the ancient Meso-American cultures, who ground cacao beans into a paste before mixing with water, vanilla, honey and chili until frothy, smooth and delicious.
As word of the cacao tree spread, cultures began growing it in gardens and it became part of the way of life. The Olmecs (the first major civilisation in Mexico) would use it for religious rituals or as a medicinal drink and it was famously popular among the Mayans, too.
In fact, in the famous Mayan text, the Dresden Codex, Mayans write that cacao was known to be the food of the rain god, Kon, while another famous piece – the Madrid Codex – even revealed that gods shed their blood on cacao pods as they grew.
By 1400, the ancient Aztecs came into power and chocolate history became even richer.
It was during this era that cocoa beans became so prized that they were kept in locked boxes and some enterprising Aztecs would even create their own counterfeit cocoa beans.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Aztecs believed that the cacao bean had mystical, magical properties and they were used in sacred rituals for birth, marriage and death. It was also the Aztecs who first came to see the wondrous cacao as a currency and, with each area they conquered, they demanded that the people paid them cacao beans as a tax. It’s thought that ten beans could buy Aztecs a stay from a lady overnight, while 100 beans could buy a turkey or a canoe.
The chocolate drink was even so precious that it was served in golden goblets that were thrown away after just one use!
Until the 16th century, the wonders of rich, velvety cacao were sadly unknown to us Brits and our fellow Europeans. In fact, without the famous Spanish explorer Christopher Colombus, we may never have discovered our favourite food.
On his fourth mission to the Americas in 1502, Colombus and his crew seized a huge canoe, packed with goods for trade, including cacao beans. Colombus’ son, Ferdinand, noted that the natives loved the beans (which, weirdly, he called “almonds”), saying "for when they were brought on board ship together with their goods, I observed that when any of these almonds fell, they all stooped to pick it up, as if an eye had fallen."
Legend also has it that the Aztec king Montezuma (who, incidentally, drank 50 cups of cocoa a day and an extra one if he was meeting a lady friend) welcomed the Spanish explorer Hernando Cortes with a banquet that included liquid chocolate, having mistaken him for a reincarnated deity instead of a conquering invader.
However, chocolate didn't suit the Spaniards’ taste buds at first, with one writing that it was much like "a bitter drink for pigs". Whoever discovered it, it was here that our modern-day love for chocolate began, although the discovery fell fairly flat until Spanish friars introduced chocolate to the country’s courts. Here, it quickly became a huge favourite as a hot drink with a squidge of honey or sugar – and our love for chocolate soon spiralled.
By 1615, cocoa had found its way into the court of King Louis the Thirteenth of France at a royal wedding. His son, Louis the Fourteenth, was not a huge chocolate lover, although he had a huge helping hand in making the drink fashionable when he gave David Chaillou a ‘royal authorisation’ to open the first chocolaterie in Paris.
Soon, chocolate fever was sweeping through Europe and it eventually made its appearance in Great Britain. In 1657, the first English chocolate houses opened, much like today’s cafes. Because the drink was still considered to be a luxury, the shops were crammed with men, who used them as a place to gamble and discuss politics.
As we went crazy for cacao, the slave market went into overdrive, trying to keep up with our desires. Soon, cacao plantations spread across the globe as us Brits joined the Dutch and French in colonising and planting them.
However, manual labour in chocolate production began to take a backseat when the Industrial Revolution saw new processes and machines designed to speed up production…
So, how did modern-day chocolate emerge from this delicious, indulgent liquid?
Well, there were a few things which helped chocolate to become the taste sensation that we know. For starters, a Dutch chemist by the name of Coenraad van Houten began adding alkaline salts to chocolate which, to his delight, he found eased its bitterness.
A few years later – in 1828 – he invented a special chocolate press, which removed about half of the fat (what we know as the cacao butter) from chocolate liquor. While it might not sound all that much, this paved the way for chocolate bars by making it both cheaper to produce and of a higher quality.
This pressed chocolate came to be known as 'dutch-processed' cocoa and helped to make chocolate smoother and creamier. Chocolate that doesn't have an alkaline added to is known as natural.
By 1847, a British man by the name of Joseph Fry learned how to make chocolate mouldable by pouring the melted cacao butter back into the liquor. One year later, the very first chocolate bar appeared.
This delicious new invention was made from a blend of cocoa powder and sugar, with a little of the melted cocoa butter stirred back in. It might have been coarse and bitter by today’s standards but it was a revolution and saw the start of the world’s love affair with chocolate. After thousands of years being consumed as a beverage, this was the first time chocolate could be eaten!
Now, chocolate discoveries were coming faster than ever before. Milk chocolate found fame when Daniel Peter mixed some powdered milk, created by Henri Nestle, with the rich chocolate liquour. Many other companies followed hot on their tails, including Nestle and Cadbury, who began selling and making boxed chocolates in England by 1868.
Many of today’s major chocolate players (Cadburys, Fry’s, Terry’s, Rowntree’s) were founded with money from Quaker families, who were eager for chocolate to take the place of alcohol, which they saw as a sin.
By 1879, the chocolate-making process was hotting up, and Rodolph Lindt invented the conching machine. While it may sound like something out of Harry Potter, the conche helped chocolatiers to evenly distribute cocoa butter through chocolate, giving it a mild, rich taste.
Fast forward a few years and us chocoholic Brits love our sweet treats. So much so that we’re now the world’s seventh biggest chocolate eaters, with each of us devouring close to 18lbs worth of bars every year2. That’s a whole lot of chocolate!
Of course, far from its liquidy beginnings, chocolate has come a long way over the centuries. Once enjoyed only by the rich as a health drink, chocolate sales are booming – it’s thought that an astonishing $100bn was spent on chocolate around the world in 20153 - and it’s now eaten by pretty much everyone and anyone.
Take a look down any confectionary aisle in the supermarket and it’s likely you’ll be stunned by rows and rows of different chocolates – rainbows of wrappers, weird and wonderful flavour concoctions and huge numbers of brands!
However, as you probably know, "chocolate" will now often contain more sugar and additives than actual cacao.
Thankfully, as our knowledge of health and all things natural grows, so too does our love of chocolate – as nature intended it! Sales of dark chocolate are booming, becoming the world’s most beloved type of chocolate, while more and more of us now see cacao as a kitchen cupboard essential4.
Chocolate specialists are now also selling 100% cacao bars, with experts saying that “people are waking up to the fact that chocolate is not a generic product. They are realising that different beans have different flavours, you can also use the same bean and change the way it tastes in the production process5.
"You get wine connoisseurs, you get cheese connoisseurs, now there is a growing number of chocolate connoisseurs. A chocolate can be as complex and specialist as a fine wine."
The delicious chocolate bar starts its life as a humble cocoa bean on the Theobroma Cacao tree. Although these leafy trees are most commonly found in tropical South and Central America, us humans have planted so many that they can now be found across the globe.
Twice a year, ripe cacao pods will be harvested from these trees (It takes around one year for a cacao tree to produce enough pods to make ten single bars). Once this is done, the pods will be slashed open with machetes so that the white pulp containing the delicious, prized cacao beans can be scooped out.
There are actually many different types of cacao beans and these all affect the taste of the finished bar massively. Here are some of the beans you’ll most commonly find on supermarket shelves:
Criollo are the luxury cacao bean and make up just 5% of the world’s total cacao harvest. They are considered to have the finest flavours but are more difficult to cultivate so yield smaller harvests.
These are the most common types of cacao and are mainly found in West Africa. Because they are a much tougher bean, they’ll yield larger harvests and are sometimes mixed with other beans.
Trinitario is a hybrid of Criollo and Forastero and so contains some of the characteristics of both. It comes from Trinidad after the Forastero bean was introduced to the local Criollo crop.
However, even these three beans will taste different, according to where they’ve been grown – and there’s even a huge array of genetics within these varieties. When you add this to the different soil conditions and even climates, you’re left with a huge range of flavour profiles to create all of the world’s wonderful, individual chocolate bars.
Whatever the bean used, they’ll be used in the same way (up to a point!). After harvesting, the pods and the pulp will be placed into large containers and allowed to ferment for a few days. This helps to develop the intricate flavours of the chocolate and is why cocoa farmers can have a huge effect on just how tasty the finished product is.
After they’ve been fermented, the beans will be dried out. If being used to make chocolate, rather than a cacao powder, the dried beans are often shipped around the world to expert chocolatiers and confectionary companies (most chocolate is made in Europe or North America, where the climate is much cooler), ready for roasting and making into chocolate.
The process for roasting – and the equipment used to do it – will vary massively from chocolate maker to chocolate maker and will often be used to top-secret recipes. Even the time for roasting and the oven temperature will often be a closely-guarded secret! However, once the beans have been roasted, their papery outer shell will be removed (this is called winnowing). This is when makers will be left with shards of pure cocoa beans, which we know and love as “cacao nibs”.
These nibs will now get ground with stone rollers until they become a rich paste known as cocoa liquor, which is packed with both cocoa solids (the chocolatey part) and cocoa butter (the fat). The cocoa butter will then be extracted using a hydraulic press, before it will be added back in for a smooth, glossy texture.
The cocoa mass will then be put through a conching machine and is where the chocolate flavourings and any sugar or milk powder will be thrown in to create an individual product.
As you know, the very best chocolate bars have a wonderful “snap” to them and achieving this is a skill in itself – all bars will be finished off by tempering before being moulded and wrapped. Tempering is where the chocolate’s temperature will be raised, then lowered and raised again to achieve the right kind of crystals.
Making your own, however, can be surprisingly simple and tasty:
With such a vibrant history, there’s little wonder that chocolate has so many weird and wonderful facts. Here are some of our favourite chocolate-shaped fragments of knowledge:
If health is important to you, then we’d recommend that you have a quick read of the labels before buying your chocolate bar. Many of the bars sitting pretty on supermarket shelves, especially white or milk chocolate, are loaded with sugar and contain very little of the nutritious, chocolatey cacao at all.
So, how can you ensure you’re buying proper, nutritious chocolate? For us, the key is to go for the chocolate bar with the highest natural cacao content you can find – we love enjoying our chocolatey treat with 85% cacao or above (and, sometimes, 100% if you’re feeling brave!). Not only are these bars full of rich, chocolatey flavour but you’ll only need to eat a couple of squares to get your chocolate hit.
You could also try to see if the label tells you which cacao beans your bar is made from (see our handy guide above to find out which are the best!) and also where they’ve been grown.
We never tire of eating chocolate (or drinking our Cacao Powder/Drinking Chocolate with almond milk) and we’re always searching for new ways to add this ancient ingredient to our diets. If you’re feeling inspired by this article and would like to get creative, then here are some chocolatey recipes to try:
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Sam Hadadi is an ex-BBC journalist and now a freelance writer specialising in fitness and food.