The cocoa tree famous from its product chocolate has a long history. Chocolate which is made from a cocoa tree is one of the world’s favorite foodstuffs. Enjoyed as a drink, in cakes, in delicate assortments and solid bars, chocolate comes in a myriad of forms and its universal appeal has made it spread across all corners of the world. But despite often being associated with the countries of Northern and Central Europe – Belgium, Switzerland, Germany, France, and Britain – Cocoa and South American Culture are inseparable. Cocoa has a long history and actually originates from much, much further afield.
Unknown to Europeans until Spanish and Portuguese conquistadors arrived in Central and South America around the sixteenth century AD, chocolate had been of enormous cultural significance to the ancient civilizations of the New World for millennia. It played a huge role in the religious rites of the Mayan and Aztec cultures of modern-day Mexico and, indeed, the modern English language word chocolate is believed to have derived from a Nahuatl – the language of the Aztecs – word xocolatl, meaning ‘bitter water’. This term gives us a clue how chocolate was consumed at this time. Beans from the cocoa tree were roasted and ground into a paste before being mixed with chili peppers and other substances and then added to water to create a spicy and bitter drink with a harsh taste.
Early European explorers were mystified that a drink they considered virtually unpalatable – a Spanish priest called it loathsome – was so popular amongst the natives and began to experiment with chocolate themselves. By removing the chilies and adding sugar and other sweeteners, it was possible to create a delicious drink that appealed to European sensibilities and the beverage soon exploded in popularity in Spanish America. Before long, it was being exported across the Atlantic in vast quantities.
Spain’s early production of cocoa beans was highly dependent on slavery and chocolate was considered such a luxury that only royalty and the cream of nobility could afford it. While the chocolate was available to anyone with enough money in other parts of Europe, like England, it was to be some time before it found a mass audience.
At the very end of the eighteenth century, confectioners in Europe finally discovered how to create chocolate as a solid cheaply and easily and within a few decades its popularity had exploded. By 1826 it was being sold in large quantities in Italy and Switzerland and in the late 1840s, two of the most famous brands in Britain were created; Fry and Cadbury’s, both of which survive to this day. Milk chocolate was developed in 1875 by a Swiss chocolate maker in conjunction with Nestle, a company who at the time produced only baby food and by the turn of the century chocolate was being mass produced in affordable bars that could be enjoyed by those from all levels of society.
Today chocolate is enjoyed by billions of people around the world and is considered a favorite indulgence by many people. Chocolate hampers are now a firmly established part of the any holiday season and manufacturers are constantly discovering new ways to delight and astonish our taste-buds with chocolate every passing year.
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