- Written by Victor M. Parachin Victor M. Parachin
Chocolate has been making Americans smile for at least 4,000 years now — South Americans, that is.
Scientists believe the first cocoa trees grew wild in the Amazon valleys of South America. Archaeologists note that cocoa was cultivated by the ancient Mayans, who took it with them when they migrated to the Yucatan.
The Aztecs were also familiar with the cocoa bean, and they too carried it with them as they journeyed through Central America. Spanish explorers reported that the Aztec emperor, Montezuma, drank up to 50 cups of chocolate daily.
Today, four millennia later, chocolate has won over the world. Here are some fascinating chocolate facts.
Chocolate has been transformed. Today’s chocolate is quite different from what the ancient Mayans and Aztecs consumed. They allowed beans to ferment in the pod, and then roasted them and ground them into a fine powder, which was mixed with water.
The drink was cold, somewhat bitter, and called chocolatl. Some of the bitterness could be tempered with the addition of vanilla beans.
Columbus brings chocolate to Europe. Among the treasures Columbus brought back from the New World was a beverage he called cocoa. His mixture was more pleasing to European tastes because of the generous addition of sugar and milk.
It became such a sensation in the Spanish court of King Ferdinand that he demanded a vow of silence; no one was permitted to reveal the new, secret drink. The penalty for doing so was death.
His demand, combined with the threat of capital punishment, was effective. The Spanish had chocolate to themselves for nearly a full century before word of it leaked out.
It was believed to be a medicine. Early Spanish explorers declared chocolate a “divine drink” and believed it heightened resistance to disease and guarded against fatigue. Like the Aztecs, they also used it as a medicine for dysentery.
As the popularity of this mystical bean first spread to Europe, it was promoted as a chocolate medicinal drink that could cure various ills.
Many Europeans, including Italian adventurer and author Giacomo Casanova, claimed it was an inducement to romance. Called an “inflamer of passions,” chocolate was said to tempt monks to break their vows.
Its romantic powers are likely the reason chocolate is connected to Valentine’s Day.
Chocolate spreads across Europe. The first country beyond Spain to enjoy chocolate was Italy in 1606. An Italian visiting Spain — Antonio Carletti — encountered chocolate and brought samples back to Italy. Soon Italians were in search of their own source of chocolate.
France received chocolate as part of the dowry for the marriage of the Spanish princess Maria Theresa to King Louis XIV in 1660. French royals, like their Spanish counterparts, were enthralled with chocolate. In fact, King Louis established a new court position: royal chocolate maker to the king.
It was a French citizen who brought chocolate to England when he opened a London shop in 1657, where he sold blocks of chocolate to turn into a drink. Soon cocoa pubs were appearing all over England, developing such a following that ale makers tried to restrict the sale of their new competitor.
The Swiss produce a new chocolate texture. Rodolphe Lindt, a Swiss citizen, experimented with producing a smoother, creamier chocolate, one that would melt on the tongue.
To do this he invented the “conching” machine. To “conche” meant to heat and roll chocolate in order to further refine it. He conched chocolate for 72 hours, adding more cocoa butter until it became smooth and creamy.
It’s called the ‘Food of the Gods.’ In 1753 the Swedish botanist, Carolus Linnaeus, gave the cocoa plant its scientific name: Theobroma cacao, literally “the food of the gods.”
The tree is cacao, the bean is cocoa, and the food is chocolate. This plant bears no relation to coconuts or coca, the source of cocaine.
North Americans experience chocolate. The first North American chocolate was manufactured in 1765 in the corner of a Boston factory by John Hannon, an Irish immigrant.
America’s most famous chocolatier was a Pennsylvanian named Milton Hershey. In 1894 Hershey presented Americans with the first Hershey bar. He made it out of simple, basic ingredients: sugar, cocoa, chocolate, and milk.
The Hershey bar, which sold for a few pennies, was affordable to most Americans and was an astounding success.
Chocolate is heavenly and healthy. If you're concerned that this delicious treat may not be all that good for you, take heart — some research indicates that chocolate may be the olive oil of desserts.
Three separate studies indicate that even when chocolate is consumed on a daily basis over a long period of time, it does not raise blood cholesterol levels in healthy individuals, while other forms of saturated fat do.
Those studies confirm what most of us already know — namely, that chocolate tastes good and may even be good for us!
Quick Chocolate Stats
• Cocoa is the third-largest cash crop, behind coffee and sugar. The United States and Europe consume two-thirds of all the chocolate produced.
• A single chocolate chip provides sufficient food energy for an adult to walk 150 feet. It would take about 875,000 chocolate chips for an around-the-world hike.
• Cocoa only grows within 20 degrees of the equator. In 1996, Hawaii became the first U.S. state to produce cocoa.
• Chocolate makes use of 40 percent of the world’s almonds, 20 percent of the peanuts, and 8 percent of the sugar.
• While sales of most food products in the United States grow at an average rate of 1 percent a year, chocolate sales grow at 3 percent.
• Americans consume more than 2 billion pounds of chocolate in one year or 11 pounds per person per year. On Valentine’s Day alone, Americans will spend half a billion dollars for chocolate.