The History of Cocoa and Chocolate

Cocoa beans

The history of the cocoa plant starts in the forest between the Orinoco and Amazon rivers. Some experts say that the cocoa plant had been growing on earth ever since 4000 years B.C. and that in the early history of the New World, the Olmec people were the first to cultivate and use it.

Afterwards, we learn that the Toltecan people (9th - 12th century) had a real veneration for the cocoa plant; their King, the god Quetzalcoatl, was considered the gardener of the heaven of the gods and the guardian of this plant, which had been sent on earth as a gift to alleviate fatigue and dispense strength and wealth.

We don't know who had the idea of picking cocoa seeds and then fermenting them, roasting and crushing them to obtain a paste when, in the beginning, people were only eating the acidulous refreshing pulp of the "cabosse".

We know for certain that proper cultivation of the cocoa plant started with the Mayas in Yucatán and Guatemala.

Cocoa beans and powder

At the time of their third king (King Hunahpu), the cocoa fruit was used as money, and the payment of taxes was request in cocoa.

The Mayan civilization faced period of great destruction and suffered different invasions. In 1519, at the time of Montezuma's empire, when the Aztec people witnessed the arrival of vessels full of men in shiny suits of armour, they thought the prophecy of the god Quetzalcoatl was fulfilled; they believed that these men came from the sea to give them back their sacked treasures and restore their kingdom to its ancient magnificience.

They welcomed these people with great celebrations, without knowing that their aim was to conquer new lands. The Spanish invaders, at the order of captain Hernán Cortés, noticed immediately that at the emperor's court, great quantities of a dark, creamy beverage were served in golden cups.

This beverage was prepared using powdered cocoa seeds with the addition of water and chilli pepper or other flavouring spices.


The Spanish didn't like it but immediately understood its importance, and that its energy-giving nutritious value was worth a fortune.

Henrnán Cortés was the firts navigator to bring cocoa to the Court of Charles V, king of Spain; from then on, cocoa fruit became the monopoly of spanish trade.

The cocoa plants aroused lively interest among the botanists of that time; one of them, Girolamo Benzoni, after travelling in the Americas, wrote the book "A History of the New World" where he describes how the Aztec people used to grow cocoa and prepare chocolate in great detail.

Like the colonists, he didn't appreciate this beverage either. But when somebody had the idea of adding sugar (after that the Spanish people introduced sugar cane cultivation), everyone appreciated the dark creamy beverage.

Then honey, aniseed, cinnamon, vanilla or other flavourings were also added to cocoa, transforming the bitter beverage, which would otherwise have probably disappeared, into a real godsend.

Louis XIV of France

Around 1580, the Spanish conquerors who had up until that moment kept this treasure from other people, started to ship loads of cocoa seeds to Europe; regular shipping was then arranged between the port of Veracruz and the colonies.

The Court of Madrid, at that time capital of the Kingdom of Philip II, was the base from which chocolate would reach Europe, but its arrival in France was due to Anne of Austria, daughter of Philip III, King of Spain, who married Louis XIII of France.

It is said that she brouhgt the entire equipment for preparing drinking chocolate with her and that her maid at court was the only person to be entrusted with this kind of ceremony. In any case, it was Maria Theresa, Infanta of Spain who, on marrying Louis XIV ("le Roi-Soleil"), started to drink chocolate verey morning on awakening and when receiving, thus making chocolate extremely popular (hot chocolate in particular was appreciated).

The method for preparing drinking chocolate has changed in time: during the Aztec or Maya civilization, the beverage sas transferred several time from one jug to another so as to form a cream and remove the film of cocoa fat from the surface.

Pope Pius V

At a later stage, a wooden beater was used to make the drinking chocolate creamier, with no lumps. In any case, notwithstanding its success, chocolate was still a provilege of the nobles and burdened with heavy taxes.

The first who succeeded in breaking up the Spanish monopoly was Marquis Antonio Francesco Carletti (a florentine merchant); in 1606, after one of his numberless trips to the Spanish colonies, he brought back some fruits of the cocoa plant and started to market them.

Thanks to Marquis Carletti, chocolate successfully reached Italy; in the 17th century, some chocolate manufacturers in Venice, Florence and particulary Turin, became real experts in its preparation and started to export it all over Europe.

Up till then, this skill had been only reserved to the monks, who were also renowned for their ability in pharmacopoeia. For many years, the Catholic Church was divided by priests who wondered wheter chocolate, able to soothe the cramps of fast, was a beverage or a food.

In 1569, Pope Pius V declared that chocolate does not break one's fast, but the dilemma was resolved only in 1602 when Francesco Maria Brancaccio pronounced the final verdict that reassured consumers and merchants.


Chocolate obtained everyone's approval; botanists and doctors, for instance, attached great importance to its properties: nutritious, stimulating, aphrodisiac, effective against consumption, rheumatism and pulmonary congestion. By then, its use had spread both in Italy and in Europe; chocolate was served in convivial places where customers, besides enjoying a good cup of chocolate, were especially cultivating political, social and cultural relationships.

However, for at least eighteen centuries, chocolate remained a beverage for the elite; only with the French Revolution, which put an end to the supremacy of the aristocracy in Chatolic Europe, and thanks to the Industrial Revolution, chocolate was transformed from an expensive beverage into sound, inexpensive food.

The year 1828 marks the beginning of the modern age of chocolate, as far as its manufacturing and processing are concerned; so, the ancient, thick, creamy beverage is overthrown by powdered cocoa. In 1847, chocolate manufacturers created a new method: a blend of powdered cocoa and sugar was mixed with melted cocoa butter (instead of lukewarm water) thus obtaining a thin, non-sticky paste which could be shaped in moulds. Chocolate bars were officially present in Birmingham in 1849. The first chocolate factories were estabilished in the 17th century thus developing new trades and jobs.