Chocolate was first discovered and cultivated in Mesoamerica. ‘Theobroma cacao’, the plant from which it originates, is native to Central and South America. The process of fermenting, roasting and grinding the bitter beans found in the cacao pod to create chocolatey drinks dates back as early as 1900 BC.
Though we are fairly certain the term ‘chocolate’ entered the English language through Spanish, the derivation of the word is still not completely clear. It is thought to be of either Aztec or Mayan origin. The Aztecs could not grow cacao plants themselves, so the beans were an imported luxury. With chocolate often referred to as ‘the Drink of the Gods’, the beans were used as common currency amongst many cultures.
This drink was unknown to Europe until the early 16th Century, when Christopher Columbus encountered a boat bearing the highly valued beans. They were then brought back to Spain where no interest was had until they were introduced to the Spanish Court. Chocolate was finally imported after the conquest of the Aztecs, and within 100 years it made its mark all over Europe.
From the 17th to 19th century, the process of making chocolate was such a manual and laborious one that only the most wealthy could afford the pleasures of the treat.
It wasn’t until the arrival of steam-powered engines from the Industrial Revolution that making chocolate became more efficient and affordable. This gave a platform for people to try out new techniques and recipes. In 1845, solid chocolate was achieved in Switzerland, paving the way to the modern era of chocolate making.
A lot of the chocolate we enjoy today is sweet, made from cacao butter, cacao solids and sugar. Many of our recipes include milk or milk powder as a popular ingredient, coining the term milk chocolate. White chocolate is made from just the cocoa butter and no cocoa solids, making it a very different kind of chocolate altogether. As well as having a pleasing bitter taste, modern research has shown that cocoa solids carry a generous amount of flavanol antioxidants which benefit cardiovascular health. When consumed in moderation, dark chocolate that is high in cocoa solids can also help to lower blood pressure.
Today, the chocolate industry is thriving throughout the world. Almost two-thirds of the world’s cacao is now produced in West Africa, with half of it grown in Ivory Coast. The demand for chocolate has risen at over 3% per year during the last century, outpacing the production of it which is at 2% growth per year. It is now an important part of festivities and celebration, given as a gift on both public and religious holidays.
The earliest cacao plant domestication dates to the Olmec culture in 1900 BC. The pod found growing on the cacao plant contains 20 to 60 seeds which we refer to as beans, surrounded by a sweet white pulp that has been known to also be used for beverages when fermented. Each bean has roughly 50% fat in the form of cacao butter. Chocolate makers recognise three main cacao bean groups. Criollo, used by the Mayans, is considered the most rare as having about 10% of the market. The most popularly used cacao bean is the Forastero, appearing in 80% of the chocolate we consume. This is because the trees are hardier and therefore create cheaper beans. Another bean is the Trinitario which is a hybrid of the other two originated from Trinidad, which also takes up 10% of the chocolate market. Criollo beans from Venezuela are considered the finest in the world.
The cacao pods are harvested by hand as this avoids damaging the flower buds or immature pods still on the tree. They are then broken open to release the beans and pulp and are then placed to ferment in either a bin or piled on to a mat covered in banana leaves. The beans are stirred gently for more oxidisation during the fermentation process which can take around eight days. The now cacao beans are then dried out in sheds or in sunlight, depending on climate, ready for storage and shipment. Once the moisture level of the bean has reached about 7% it is ready to be shipped to the chocolate makers. Next, the beans are rigorously tested and prepared for roasting. Once roasted the shell cracks apart from the cacao nib, and then is separated through winnowing, a process of blowing air at the shell. The nibs are ground to produce chocolate liquor and then rolled to create heat that distributes the cacao butter. A conch machine is used after this to slowly churn the liquor and any extra ingredients over a period of time. Finally, the chocolate is ready to be moulded into bars or begin another production cycle for other delicious treats.