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Chocolate Meltdown

Sivi Sekula

Chocoholics and cocoa nuts, take note: hot chocolate, chocolate bars, truffles, and even 3-D chocolate sculptures — this feature’s got ’em all!

Wednesday, March 01, 2017

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A bean, a beverage, a bar! There’s only one food cool enough to do all three. I’m talking about chocolate, of course! Follow chocolate’s journey as it makes its way from the plantation to your palate.

When Money Grew on Trees

See, money trees did exist at some point, until someone went and ruined it by introducing paper! The money tree — aka the cacao tree — originated in Central America. The Mayas (who ruled the area from about 250 to 900 CE) were the first to use cocoa beans to create the world’s first version of hot chocolate. The Aztecs (who conquered the Mayas and ruled from about 1200–1500) picked up right where the Mayas left off. It’s believed that a chocolate drink has been around for about 3,000 years.

The Aztecs called this concoction Xocolatl (pronounced shokolatul, so it’s easy to see where we get its modern name from). But before you go lauding them for their excellence in culinary delights, there’s something you gotta know. Xocolatl was very strong, sharp, and bitter! Ugh! It took a while before people would figure out that adding sugar and milk takes cocoa to the next level.

The Mayas and Aztecs loved their “xoco” so much that they used cacao beans as currency. A document from 1545 gives some prices: one small rabbit = 30 cacao beans; one turkey egg = 3 cacao beans; one good turkey hen = 100 full cacao beans or 120 shrunken ones; one newly picked avocado = 3 cacao beans; one fully ripe avocado = 1 cacao bean; one large tomato = 1 cacao bean; 20 small tomatoes = 1 cacao bean…

The Spanish, led by Hernando Cortes, conquered Central America in 1519, and they quickly realized the potential value of the cacao bean. They got to work planting lots of cacao trees so they could take the beans back home to use as payment. But in 1528, when Cortes returned to Spain, not only did he take cacao beans, he also took along the equipment needed to produce Xocolatl. Bonus points for Cortes!

Cocoa soon became very popular in the Spanish court. Sugar was still very expensive back then, so the Spanish added pepper instead! Talk about the wrong end of the stick. Sometimes they also liked to dilute it with water, milk, wine, or beer. Eventually, cocoa made its way across Europe, where it remained popular among the very wealthy until the 19th century — that’s when coffee and tea took over as the preferred beverages. Booooo!

Raising the Chocolate Bar

No need to mope at the downfall of chocolate just yet. Around the same time that cocoa as a drink was shoved aside, chocolate, as in the sweet treat, took center stage.


The first thing that happened was the invention of the hydraulic press in 1776, by a Frenchman called Doret. His press ground the cacao beans into a paste, making it much easier to work with.

Then, in 1828, Dutch chemist Coenraad Van Houten invented a machine that extracted the wet part of the bean — the cocoa butter — from the dry part of the bean, leaving a powder. You guessed it — cocoa powder! He mixed in some alkaline salts, which made the cocoa darker, milder tasting, and easier to mix with water.

At first, Van Houten’s invention was only used for making drinking chocolate taste better. But luckily, it didn’t take too long for someone to figure out how to make the chocolate we eat.

In 1847, a Brit named Joseph Fry discovered that if he added the cocoa butter back in with the cocoa powder, the whole mixture melted into a mouthwatering confection. Not only that, the melted chocolate could be pressed into molds to make different shapes. Finally, 1,200 years after the Mayas first made their xocolatl, the first chocolate bar was born. Eureka!

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