Current Issue
May 2014 magazine cover
Subscribe

Save 81% off the newsstand price!

Chocolate truffles (Cheryl Carlin)

A Brief History of Chocolate

Uncover the bittersweet story of this ancient treat and watch a VIDEO

Sweetened chocolate didn't appear until Europeans discovered the Americas and sampled the native cuisine. Legend has it that the Aztec king Montezuma welcomed the Spanish explorer Hernando Cortes with a banquet that included drinking chocolate, having tragically mistaken him for a reincarnated deity instead of a conquering invader. Chocolate didn't suit the foreigners' tastebuds at first –one described it in his writings as "a bitter drink for pigs" – but once mixed with honey or cane sugar, it quickly became popular throughout Spain.

By the 17th century, chocolate was a fashionable drink throughout Europe, believed to have nutritious, medicinal and even aphrodisiac properties (it's rumored that Casanova was especially fond of the stuff).  But it remained largely a privilege of the rich until the invention of the steam engine made mass production possible in the late 1700s.

In 1828, a Dutch chemist found a way to make powdered chocolate by removing about half the natural fat (cacao butter) from chocolate liquor, pulverizing what remained and treating the mixture with alkaline salts to cut the bitter taste. His product became known as "Dutch cocoa," and it soon led to the creation of solid chocolate.

The creation of the first modern chocolate bar is credited to Joseph Fry, who in 1847 discovered that he could make a moldable chocolate paste by adding melted cacao butter back into Dutch cocoa.

By 1868, a little company called Cadbury was marketing boxes of chocolate candies in England. Milk chocolate hit the market a few years later, pioneered by another name that may ring a bell – Nestle.

In America, chocolate was so valued during the Revolutionary War that it was included in soldiers' rations and used in lieu of wages. While most of us probably wouldn't settle for a chocolate paycheck these days, statistics show that the humble cacao bean is still a powerful economic force. Chocolate manufacturing is a more than 4-billion-dollar industry in the United States, and the average American eats at least half a pound of the stuff per month.

In the 20th century, the word "chocolate" expanded to include a range of affordable treats with more sugar and additives than actual cacao in them, often made from the hardiest but least flavorful of the bean varieties (forastero). 

But more recently, there's been a "chocolate revolution," Leaf said, marked by an increasing interest in high-quality, handmade chocolates and sustainable, effective cacao farming and harvesting methods. Major corporations like Hershey's have expanded their artisanal chocolate lines by purchasing smaller producers known for premium chocolates, such as Scharffen Berger and Dagoba, while independent chocolatiers continue to flourish as well.

"I see more and more American artisans doing incredible things with chocolate," Leaf said. "Although, I admit that I tend to look at the world through cocoa-tinted glasses."

Tags
About Amanda Bensen

Amanda Bensen is a former assistant editor at Smithsonian and is now a senior editor at the Nature Conservancy.

Read more from this author

Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus