A Chocolate Timeline
It’s almost impossible to believe it now, but for most of its very long history, chocolate was not something people ate. It was a beverage, and not only was that beverage rarely hot, it was usually not sweet.
Once the Spanish arrived in the New World and began to survey the riches they found there, they noted the potential of the bitter black beverage the natives were so fond of.
With the addition of another colonial product, cane sugar, chocolate began to take on its modern form. After two hundred years or so of drinking the stuff, the machines of the Industrial Revolution unlocked the secret to the chocolate bar. Chocolate, once reserved exclusively for the wealthiest members of society, is available to everyone.
1500 BCE to 400 BCE The Olmec Civilization
In their book, The True History of Chocolate, Sophie and Michael Coe argue that the cacao tree was domesticated centuries earlier than previously thought. While in the past, scholars have credited the Maya (250-900 CE), or even the Aztec (14th cent. CE), with discovering the ambrosial qualities of chocolate, now many prefer the Olmec.
They developed food-production processes that gave them the time to enjoy a relatively comfortable lifestyle, with plenty of time away from hunting and gathering for mere survival. They were able to build a vast empire and create numerous works of art — and see what they could make of the humble-looking cacao bean.
Moreover, there were great Olmec settlements in the prime cacao-growing areas in Chiapas, Guatemala, and the Yucatan, and linguistic examinations of the words cacao and chocolate yield traces of languages spoken by the Olmec.
250 to 900 CE Classic Maya Civilization
Cacao beans were used throughout Mesoamerica as currency, but the artifacts that survive from the golden age of the Maya suggest that the consumption of chocolate was, as for most of its subsequent history, restricted to the society’s elite. This literate civilization appears to have once had entire libraries of books, although only four survived the Spanish occupation (the Spanish arrived and decided it was a good idea to burn all the books).
In two of those, mention cacao often, as does the Popol Vuh, the sacred book of the Quiché Maya of Guatemala, which was transcribed into the Spanish alphabet shortly after the Europeans arrived (but does not survive in the original). The tombs of Maya nobility have been found to contain pottery vessels bearing the hieroglyph for cacao and depictions of the process of its preparation. Analysis of the traces of their contents indicates that they probably contained the drink.
This evidence doesn’t provide a real way to know all the forms in which the Maya consumed chocolate, but it seems to have been most common as a drink. The drink was made by mixing the roasted, ground cacao beans with water, flavoring it with herbs or spices (chile was common) and then agitating the mixture until foamy by pouring it from one vessel to another. One of the variations might have involved adding honey to chocolate, but the Maya did not commonly sweeten the drink, as we do now almost without exception.
14th Century The Aztec
The Aztec are believed to have migrated at the beginning of the 14th century from western Mexico to the cities in the Valley of Mexico. At the time, these cities were inhabited by the Toltec, who had enjoyed a brief golden age after the decline of the Maya. By 1375, after military conquests of the by-then declining Toltecs, they controlled much of the area and had named their first leader. Once in power, the Aztec established trading relationships with the remaining Maua, which allowed them to adopt, among other things, the use of cacao beans as currency and as a beverage.
Chocolate became popular as a drink among the Aztec upper classes, who could afford it. The custom was to serve chocolate after a feast, in a special cup (xicalli) made out of a calabash gourd. The Aztec used the same methods as the Maya to concoct their chocolate drink, and they, too, used many different flavorings. When the Spanish arrived, among the additions they documented were chiles, hueinacaztli (the spicy-tasting flower of a type of custard apple tree — the name, taken from the shape of the flower, means “great ear”), achiote (which turned the mouth a disconcerting — to the Spanish shade of red), vanilla, allspice, and honey.
The beverage was also considered beneficial to warriors. Cacao wafers, intended to be dissolved as needed, were issued to soldiers, in order to fortify them during marches and in battle.
1502 The First-Known European Encounter with Cacao
On his fourth voyage to the Americas, Christopher Columbus captured a Maya trading canoe near the island of Guanaja. In addition to its cargo of cotton, weapons, grain, and metal objects, he noted that there were some “almonds” which appeared to function as money to the natives. There is no indication that he ever looked any further into the matter than this, and by the time of his death four years later, it is likely that the European discoverer of chocolate had never tasted it.
1545 Cacao as Currency
An Aztec document containing a list of price equivalents designated the value of a tomato as one cacao bean, while an avocado was worth three, and a “good turkey hen” was worth 100 “full” or 120 “shrunken” cacao beans.
1521 The End of the Aztec Empire
Hernando Cortés, joining his army of Spaniards with native enemies of the Aztecs, among them the Tlaxcallans, defeats the empire and takes control of Mexico. Cortés is often given credit for bringing cacao back to Spain. After all, before seizing control of Tenochtitlan and establishing a puppet rule through Montezuma, he was entertained by that Emperor, who kept a huge warehouse filled with his cacao riches. Corté sent more than one shipload of New World wonders back to King Charles V in Spain, but, still, there is no specific evidence that cacao was among the cargo.
1544 First Documented Evidence of Chocolate in Europe
In 1544, a delegation of Dominican friars, who had been living in region of Guatemala still occupied by the Maya, accompanied a delegation of Kekchi people to Spain. Among the many gifts they presented to Prince Philip were containers of chocolate, frothed and ready to drink. This began a period of nearly a century during which the Spanish and Portuguese consumed chocolate, but the rest of Europe did not.
16th Century European Recipes
The Spaniards changed the way chocolate was prepared. They were put off by the drink’s black, murky appearance, and found its traditional preparations far too bitter and spicy. So, the Spanish routinely added cane sugar as a sweetener, and favored flavorings such as the New World’s vanilla, and Old World spices like cinnamon and milder black pepper as opposed to chiles. Not satisfied with the Mesoamerican method of foaming their chocolate by pouring it from one cup into another, they introduced the molinillo, a wooden whisk-like tool that is twirled between the palms of the hands to mix the chocolate and create a foam. Molinillos are still commonly found in Mexico.
1570 Medicinal Uses
Chocolate first gained popularity as a medicine, and the immediate concerns of many were to classify it according to the prevailing medical theory of the day, the humoral system first introduced by the Greeks. The royal physician to King Philip II of Spain, Francisco Hernández, classified it as cool and humid, and therefore beneficial as a fever reducer or to relieve discomfort in hot weather. Some physicians agreed, others argued the opposite position, many pointed out that, whatever the classification of cacao, the spices commonly added to it contributed their own qualities to the mix. In spite of the debate, chocolate continued to gain in popularity.
1579 The Secret of Chocolate Still Under Wraps
The behavior of English pirates confirmed that the rest of Europe remained unfamiliar with chocolate. The buccaneers who routinely preyed on Spanish vessels continued not to recognize the beans as items of worth. In 1579, one pirate ship burned an entire shipload of cacao beans, under the impression that they were sheep droppings.
1585 Chocolate Becomes a Commodity
The first official Spanish shipment of cacao beans arrived from Veracruz, Mexico, to the port at Seville.
17th Century Spiritual Considerations
In addition to the debate among physicians, religious leaders found themselves engaged in arguments about whether chocolate was a beverage or a food. Religious fasts forbade the taking of nourishment, and yet chocolate had become popular among those who were fasting precisely because it eased their hunger. Most people, including all of the popes consulted during the course of the debate (from Gregory XIII to Benedict XIV) agreed that, since one drank it, it did not break the fast. Nevertheless, there were many who took a more puritanical view, maintaining that it was far too nourishing and sustaining to be permissible.
1606 Chocolate in Italy
A merchant from Florence, Francesco d’Antonio Carletti, submitted a report to Ferdinando I de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany in 1606. It is an account of his findings on a round-the-world exploration of trade markets, and the manuscript includes a section on chocolate in the New World. It was not published, however, until the beginning of the 18th century, so its influence was limited.
1650s and 1660s Chocolate in England
By the mid-17th century, chocolate was known as a beverage in Britain. Interestingly, the appearance of chocolate coincided with the arrival of coffee from the Middle East and tea from China. Chocolate remained expensive long after the other two beverages were affordable to the middle classes, but it was one of the offerings commonly found in British coffeehouses. Within a decade, Samuel Pepys began to make regular mention of drinking chocolate in his diaries.
1660s Chocolate Gains Popularity in Italy
The influential scientist Francesco Redi was Cosimo III de’ Medici’s physician and a famous author. One of his books documented experiments he made which disproved the current theory that maggots were spontaneously generated in rotting meat. He also documented and sometimes devised — clearly as a change of pace from his more serious scientific investigations — many luxurious recipes for drinking chocolate. Among these were concoctions perfumed with ambergis and musk, as well as a recipe for jasmine-scented chocolate.
Ambergis is a substance you get from a sperm whale’s intestines when the whale has been eating squid and their beaks have irritated the walls of his innards. It was a very popular ingredient in perfumes though it is hard to imagine that it smells good. Ishmael talks lots about it in Moby Dick. Probably just as headily perfumy as musk, which is a glandular excretion from a male musk deer.
1666 Chocolate in France
Though it’s not 100% clear how it got there, chocolate was popular in the court of Louis XIV, at least before his second marriage to the rather puritanical Madame de Maintenon. (By 1693, she had persuaded him to suppress it at Versailles, but, in spite of that, chocolate continued to gain in popularity in France.) It may have been introduced by the Sun King’s mother, Anne of Austria, whose father was the Spanish King Philip III, or by his first wife, the Infanta Maria Teresa, who also grew up in Spain. Still a third theory credits Cardinal Richelieu, whose brother is known to have used chocolate medicinally.
Late 17th Century Chocolate-Related Accessories
At some point during the late 17th century, the chocolatière was invented. This provided a special tall pot for serving the beverage. The lid had a hole in the top into which a molinillo (in French, called a moulinet) was fitted, rather like a plunger.
1753 Scientific Classification
The Swedish biologist, Carolus Linnaeus, developing a binomial system for classifying living organisms, assigned the botanical name Theobroma cacao to the chocolate tree. Theobroma, in Latin, means “food of the gods,” while cacao refers to the native word for the plant.
1765 Chocolate in America
In America, Dr. James Baker of Massachusetts and an Irishman, John Hannon, joined together for one of the earliest machine-based chocolate manufacturing enterprises. Using an old grist mill, they ground cacao beans into chocolate liquor and pressed the paste into cakes meant to be made into drinking chocolate. Their company was originally known as Hannon’s Best Chocolate, until Hannon was lost at sea while on cacao-buying voyage to the West Indies. It was renamed the Baker Company and remained in the Baker family until it was bought out by General Foods in 1927.
1765 The Beginning of the Industrial Revolution
In England, James Watt invented the steam engine, launching the Industrial Revolution. The technology would rapidly be applied to chocolate manufacture.
1774 Chocolate and Poison
Although the story is said to be apocryphal, the rumors surrounding the death of Pope Clement XIV in 1774 make use of the fact that chocolate was considered a particularly good medium for administering poison. The Pope was believed to have been killed with a cup of poisoned chocolate by the Jesuits — known to be chocolate drinkers — whom he had suppressed the year before. The confectioner who unknowingly served and shared the tainted beverage also died, and it was said that the embalmer’s arms swelled after touching the body.
1819 The First of Many Swiss Chocolatiers
The pioneer in Swiss chocolate-making, François Louis Cailler, opened a chocolate factory near Vevey on Lake Geneva in 1819, using machinery he had developed himself.
1828 The Invention of Dutch Cocoa
Coenraad Van Houten, a chemist and chocolate manufacturer in Amsterdam, patented an invention that was soon to change chocolate from a beverage to a confection. He had devised a process for making chocolate powder by using hydraulic pressure to remove almost half of the cocoa butter from chocolate liquor. This reduced the fat content from over 50% to about 25%, and made a hard cake that could be pulverized. Then, in order to make this powder easier to mix into warm water, he treated it with alkaline salts, which also made the color darker and removed some of the bitterness. This treatment came to be known as “Dutching.”
1847 The First Modern Chocolate Bar
Joseph Fry & Son, chocolate manufacturers, was founded by a Quaker who had been a doctor before opening the business. The original Joseph Fry did not stick with chocolate, but left the company to his sons so that he could become a typefounder. As the successive generations of the family took over the business, they made steady improvements. In 1789, his son (also named Joseph Fry) bought a Watts steam engine to grind the cacao. In 1847, the firm under the leadership of the original Joseph Fry’s great-grandson — discovered a way to mix some of the melted cacao butter back into defatted, or “Dutched,” cocoa powder (along with sugar) to create a paste that could be pressed into a mold. The resulting bar was such a hit that people soon began to think of eating chocolate as much as drinking it.
Mid-19th Century Affordable Chocolate
As part of his policy for promoting economic prosperity in England, Prime Minister William Gladstone reduced the taxes on cacao beans, making them more attractive to British manufacturers who wished to cater to a large portion of the population.
1860 Establishing Standards of Purity
As a result of investigations by the British journal, the Lancet, it was discovered that there were numerous food adulteration strategies practiced by manufacturers — among them adding brick dust to chocolate powder. In 1860, the first British Food and Drugs Act was passed.
1868 Cadbury’s Chocolates
Another Quaker, John Cadbury, opened a grocery shop in Birmingham, England in 1824, where, as part of the business, he roasted and ground his own cacao beans. Soon, realizing that it surpassed all his other items in profitability, he decided to concentrate on manufacturing chocolate. By 1854, Cadbury had received a Royal Warrant to be the sole purveyor of cocoa and chocolate to Queen Victoria. In 1866, Cadbury’s sons, Richard and George, who had taken over the business, purchased a Van Houten Cocoa Press machine for the factory and began to market their own cocoa powder. Cadbury marketed the first box of chocolate candies in 1868, packed in a box decorated in the sentimental Victorian style.
The Cadbury family retained their Quaker values even as the business became an empire. In 1879, they took over the Birmingham suburb of Bournville. There, they built their factory, as well as a full town that provided worker housing and recreational facilities.
1849 Ghirardelli Arrives in San Francisco
Domingo Ghirardelli originally emigrated to Uruguay from his native Italy, in order to establish a chocolate-making business. He did not, however, settle there, but moved to Peru for a few years and then, in 1849, set off for California, hoping to get in on the Gold Rush. Apparently, he did not waste much time hunting for gold. He built up his savings by selling tents to the miners and then started his chocolate business as planned.
1879 The Invention of Milk Chocolate
During the 1860s, the Swiss chocolate manufacturer, Daniel Peter, tried repeatedly to create a chocolate bar flavored with milk, but he couldn’t manage to produce a smooth mixture of milk and chocolate.
As it happened, in 1867, Henri Nestlé (also Swiss) was working on a concentrated infant food formula, which required that he find a way to treat milk so that it would not spoil while in storage but could be quickly reconstituted for use.
The result of his efforts, a sweetened condensed milk, turned out to be perfect for Peter’s purposes; the low water content made it possible to mix it with the chocolate into a bar that did not spoil. By 1879, Peter and Nestlé had joined to form a company. Nestlé has become the largest food company in the world.
1868 A Second Gold-Rush Chocolatier
Frenchman Etienne Guittard came to San Francisco in search of gold, but decided instead to start a chocolate business, like the one his uncle owned back in his native country. Today, Guittard, under control of its founder’s great-grandson, Gary Guittard, is the largest privately owned chocolate company in the United States.
1879 Making Chocolate Smooth
In 1879, Rudolphe Lindt invented the conching machine, a shell-shaped granite bed over which rollers moved back and forth to grind the chocolate liquor, sugar and (if used) milk into a paste that was smoother than had ever been achieved before.
Lindt called his new chocolate products fondants, after the popular and exceptionally creamy candies that were based on a cooked mixture of sugar with cream of tartar. Soon, conching was adopted as a standard step in the chocolate-making process. Originally, the friction of the rollers heated the paste as they ground it, which meant that the preliminary roasting could be eliminated. Modern conching machine rollers are cooled so that the roasting time can be controlled as much as possible.
1893 Hershey Enters the Business
When Milton Snavely Hershey, a Mennonite from Pennsylvania Dutch country, visited the World Colombian Exposition in Chicago, he was impressed by the chocolate processing machinery there. At the time, he owned a caramel manufacturing company in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and he bought the machines so that he could coat his candies with chocolate.
Then he made an investigatory tour of chocolate manufacturers in Europe and became convinced that he should devote his entire business to chocolate. He rang in the 20th century by introducing the milk chocolate Hershey bar and, five years later, introduced the Hershey’s Kiss. By 1906, his enterprise was so vast that he took over the town of Derry Church, renamed it Hershey, Pennsylvania, and began to transform it into the chocolate kingdom it is today. Until 1959, when Castro seized power, he also presided over “Hershey, Cuba” — a town he built around his sugar mill.
The Swiss chocolatier Jean Tobler, introduced the triangular Toblerone bar.
1913 The Filled Chocolate Bonbon
Jules Sechaud, another Swiss chocolate maker, invented the filled chocolate bonbon. From this point, it would be necessary for children in the chocolate-eating world to punch small holes with their thumbnails in the bottoms of the candies to be quite sure they wanted whatever was inside.
1922 The European Chocolate Kiss
Italian firm Perugina (est. 1907) introduced their now-famous Baci (“kisses”) for Valentines day in 1922. These confections are said to have been created by Luisa Spagnoli, the wife of the cofounder of the company. Luisa was having an affair with her husband’s partner’s son, Giovani Buitoni, and she sent him notes wrapped around the candies she submitted for his inspection.
In a move that could either be considered romantic (the company’s assertion) or cold-hearted (how does the betrayal of a man by his wife and his business partner become a selling point?), after her death, Buitoni decided to use this idea to market one of the candies she had created. So, each bonbon has a love note tucked under its foil wrapping.
1922 Valrhona Chocolates
The French firm, Valrhona was founded. Today, their gourmet chocolates are among the few that use criollo variety cacao beans.
1926 Belgian Chocolates
The most famous purveyor of Belgian chocolates was founded by Joseph Draps, who gave his business an air of risque decadence by naming it after the famously nude horsewoman. Godiva Chocolatier may have been the first chocolate company to challenge Hershey’s and Nestlé’s supremacy in America by introducing high-end, expensive chocolate into the market. Their bonbons are made by pressing the ingredients into a mold, rather than dipping them in chocolate.
1929 Chocolate from the Source
In 1929, Jose Rafael Zozaya went into business with his father-in-law Carmelo Tuozzo to manufacture chocolate, an unusual enterprise in a country where the cacao was actually grown. They named their product El Rey and made it a point to use the particularly fragrant criollo variety beans native to Venezuela.
1929 Chocolate Covered Cherries
Cella’s Confections (est.1864) began manufacturing chocolate-covered cherries at their candy factory on West Broadway at Canal Street in New York. Although in the 19th century this was New York’s confectionery district, today, they are the only remaining candy factory in the area.
1930 The Toll House Cookie
1936 The Chunky Bar
These thick bars, filled with nuts and raisins, were invented by Philip Silverstein at his candy company on Delancey Street in New York.
WWII Nourishing the Army
At Milton Hershey’s suggestion — and in a move reminiscent of the Aztec practice — the American military decided to include three four-ounce chocolate bars, each with 600 calories, in a soldier’s “D-Ration.” Although meant to sustain the men, the bars also came in some way to be associated with the return of peace, when, long-malnourished victims of the Germans found themselves approached by Americans holding out chocolate. The chocolate is still a standard issue in the military.
1986 Hawaiian Vintage Chocolate
Jim Walsh, an advertising executive from Chicago, decided to move with his family to Hawaii to start a chocolate business. He chose the premium criollo variety and established his plantation on Kona and Kea’au. The fermented, dried beans are sent to California where they are made into very high quality chocolate sold by mail order, especially to professional pastry chefs. Read more about Hawaiian Vintage Chocolate.
The True History of Chocolate by Sophie D. and Michael D. Coe. New York: Thames and Hudson, Inc., 1996.
The Chocolate Bible by Adrianne Marcus. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1979.
On the Web
To get a good idea of how cacao is harvested take a look at this site, sponsored by Cocoa from Ghana.
Other gourmet chocolates to buy include Caffarel.
Or, take a look at Home & Garden Magazine’s excellent Hot Chocolate recipe…