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The history of chocolate

The origin of chocolate

The history of chocolate at the beginning, 4000 years BC, in North America, where the cocoa tree grows spontaneously along the Orinoco basin and the Amazon River.

The first to discover the nutritional virtues of this plant were the Maya, who introduced it to the Yucatan peninsula around 600 AD.

Great farmers are also the Olmecs and Toltecs, in fact, before the invasion of the Aztecs, they further extended the production of cocoa, up to the inland areas of today’s Mexico.

In addition to being a food, cocoa was also a currency for the Maya and with the Aztecs, whose monetary system was really based on the beans of this plant, it definitively enters history.

The standard unit of measure for cocoa that dates back to the Maya is the “carga”, which is equivalent to 24,000 almonds and the load that could be carried on the shoulder; the carga is made up of three xiquipil of 8,000 beans, each of which is equivalent to 21 zontle of 400 beans.

Xoconochco, the country from which one of the best cocoa in the world comes, paid an annual tax of 200 carga, while Tabasco paid 2,000 xiquipil.

Many thoughtless natives preferred to drink cocoa rather than get rich.

Hernandez (1572) reported that the natives had a happy life, did not care about the future and enjoyed the temporal goods of nature by using cocoa beans instead of money.

An explorer from Central America recalls, on his return from a trip, that with 4 cocoa beans you could buy a pumpkin, with 10 a rabbit, with 12 a night with a concubine and with 100 a slave.

Christopher Columbus and H. Cortés

The official date of the “discovery of cocoa” is July 30, 1502, the day on which the Aztecs, going to meet the Santa Maria, offered Christopher Columbus, during his fourth and last journey in search of gold, as well as fabrics and worked leather , also their currency, that is cocoa “almonds”. In fact, when Christopher Columbus landed on the island of Guanja, off the coast of Honduras, the natives welcomed him by offering him a cup of xocolatl. The intense and bitter taste of this drink was not appreciated by the European discoverers, so much so that Christopher Columbus did not give it any importance. The true knowledge of the plant came a few years later with the return to Spain of Hérnan Cortéz from Mexico.

Seventeen years later, in 1519, Hernàn Cortèz, who had come from Spain to conquer the New Earth, was peacefully welcomed by the natives and by the Emperor Montezuma. The latter, believing in the return of the god Quetzalcoàtl foreseen according to legend in that year, thought that the Spaniard was the reincarnation of the “Feathered Serpent”. Montezuma poured the so-called “food of the gods” into gold cups and offered the new arrivals the treasure of Quetzalcoàtl, a drink made from cocoa, corn flour and spices such as chilli. Cortèz immediately understood the economic value of cocoa and took it with him to Spain. Here it was the friars, great experts in blends and infusions, who replaced pepper and chilli with sugar and vanilla, creating a sweet and tasty drink. In his first report to Emperor Charles V, Cortéz writes about cocoa: “it is a fruit that resembles almonds, which the natives sell already ground. They hold them in great value, so much so that these beans serve as a currency throughout their territory; with them you buy everything in the markets and elsewhere “. The Spaniards did not take long to realize that the cocoa fruit had multiple prerogatives worthy of attention. The beans had an intrinsic value and a market value determined by commercial exchanges. The cocoa would therefore have allowed partial financing of the Spanish colonial enterprise in Central America and the southern provinces.

From the stories of the characters following Cortéz, it seems that the cocoa tree was considered a symbol of luck, both because its fruits were real coins, and because from them a juice was extracted that gave strength and vigor and was consumed after meals for its nutritional properties. There were several traditions related to this plant and its fruits, which are often associated with the symbols of the gods: real ceremonies took place on the occasion of the harvest, preceded by thirteen days of chastity for the young.

The Spaniards, on their return from the New World, introduced the use of cocoa to Europe and Italy was the second European country after Spain to discover the exotic drink. It is precisely the function of means of exchange for cocoa beans that has stimulated relations and commercial exchanges throughout Central America, giving rise to a great development and an extraordinary spread of arithmetic. After the fall of the Mayan empire in the ninth century, the Aztecs imposed the payment of taxes, which could be paid in cocoa beans by the dominated populations.

The Spanish monks must also be credited with having emphasized the high nutritional power of chocolate, to the point of considering it a food support, irreplaceable during long periods of fasting. For almost the whole of the 1500s, the discovery of Cortèz remained a great “business” of the Spanish court, which managed to keep the secret of the production of chocolate, but to spread its goodness in various countries. In 1609 the first treatise written exclusively on cocoa was published in Mexico: “Libro en el cual se trata del chocolate”.

From the 17th century onwards

From France, cocoa beans were introduced in Piedmont, a land that gave birth to many artisans who made Turin, starting from the end of the 17th century, the Italian capital of chocolate. The first Italian license to open a chocolate shop dates back to 1678, when Giò Battista Ari obtained the authorization and the patent of the House of Savoy to practice the art of chocolatier. In this century the first chocolate factories appeared, taking over from monasteries and convents. And it was precisely in the workshops of the Turin artisans that those Swiss learned the art, who went down to work as shop boys, whose names today are easily identifiable in the brands of some well-known chocolates.

In 1732 in France, Dubuisson invented the horizontal table heated with charcoal, which allowed the cocoa-crushing worker to work standing up more efficiently.
In 1778, again in France, the first hydraulic refining machine for cocoa paste was born.

Towards the end of the 1700s and the early 1800s, steam machines were used in England to grind cocoa beans: thus began the production of large quantities of chocolate.

In Holland, Van Houten invents a machine to extract cocoa butter, the drink begins to become more fluid and therefore more pleasant.

At the end of the 1800s the Swiss Daniel Peter added condensed milk to the chocolate, obtaining a milk chocolate with a solid consistency. Also in the late 1800s, another Swiss, Rudolph Lindt, develops a new and original method to refine chocolate, the result is an extremely fine finished product: dark chocolate.

Today this miraculous ingredient is universally appreciated and consumed all over the world.

Chocolate in Europe

Chocolate spread first in Spain but in Italy, and precisely in Tuscany some particular ingredients began to be added: fresh citron and limoncello peel, aromas of jasmine, cinnamon, vanilla, amber and musk. The undisputed protagonist was the jasmine chocolate of the Grand Duke Cosimo III dei Medici, invented in the seventeenth century by the scientist Francesco Redi and to be considered as the first real experiment in botanical-culinary engineering. Its preparation, in fact, had been described in a recipe that listed in detail the ingredients, doses and procedure, but for this very reason it became a real state secret, so much so that it could only be enjoyed at the court of the Grand Duke. It was a sort of alchemy that required a slow odorization by contact of the cocoa powder, in which, however, the jasmine flower did not intervene in the preparation of the chocolate as an ingredient and was not even added to the cocoa as an extract, but rather combined with the flavor in the form of an impalpable aroma. In short, a very tasty fusion of perfume and flavor, nose and palate. The doses, together with many chocolate-based recipes, were jealously guarded by the brilliant prince Cosimo de Medici in the safe of the Foundry of Palazzo Pitti. In 1615, thanks to the marriage celebrated between the princess of Spain, Anna of Austria (daughter of Philip III), and Louis XIII of France, chocolate arrived in France. It is said, in fact, that the Spanish princess had brought with her the equipment to prepare the chocolate and that she only let her favorite bridesmaid use it.

Diluted with milk, and no longer with water, the chocolate drink took the name of “chocolate”, becoming, shortly after, the most popular drink in the court environment, so much so that it stood out for its real ceremonial that characterized the preparation: Cardinal Mazarine, for example, always had the delicious drink prepared by a dark waiter.

In Germany, chocolate probably arrives around 1646, thanks to a scholar from Nuremberg, who was delighted with it during his stay in Naples. The Germans willingly adopted it, but the government taxed the product in such a way that few could afford it.
A few years later, in 1657, the British also discovered chocolate.

In London, cocoa drinks were sold in specialized public places: the “chocolate-drinking houses”.

History or Legend?

As with all plants with a high social and symbolic significance, cocoa also boasts divine origins.

An ancient legend tells that at the time when Quetzacoatl ruled in Mexico, the founding god of the pre-Columbian lineage, a beautiful Aztec princess, left to guard the groom’s treasure while he was at war, was attacked by enemies who wanted to force her to reveal where was the treasure.

The princess preferred to die rather than reveal the secret. From her blood shed by this faithful bride, the cocoa plant was born. Since that day it is said that this fruit hides a treasure in its seeds, “… bitter like the sufferings of love, strong like virtue and red like the blood of the princess”.

This gift from heaven was interpreted by the Aztecs as a gift from the god Quetzacoatl, a tribute to the princess’s loyalty to her husband.

In fact, the Aztecs attributed the origin of the cocoa tree to Quetzacoatl “feathered serpent”, the bearded god with an ugly face and a long head, who reigned in the village of Tolla, an ancient Toltec city.

It was said that he possessed all the riches of the world, in gold, silver and precious stones, and also a large number of cocoa trees whose culture he had taught his vassals.

All was well, but the time came when Quetzacoatl’s fortune ended.

Three sorcerers, envious of his happiness and his wealth, raged against Quetzacoatl.

One of the two, the wizard Titlacauan took the form of a decrepit old man who said to him:

«Lord, I bring you a drink that is good and intoxicates the one who drinks it; It will soften your heart, it will heal you and it will make you know the way of your next journey in the country where you will find your youth ».

Quetzacoalt drank, got drunk and lost his head. He burned all his houses of silver and shells, and buried his treasures in the mountain and in the riverbed. He transformed the cocoa trees into another species that did not bear fruit.

He left for the countries where he thought he would find his youth again, in the direction of the rising sun, towards the east. He embarked, covered in feathers, on a vessel made of intertwined snakes, promising his people to return someday and bring back all the treasures of heaven.


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