When money grew on trees: the history of chocolate

Winter staples include hot chocolate with marshmallows and whipped cream, as well as advent calendars that hide chocolatey treats. How many of us have ever stopped to consider where chocolate comes from and how it became a part of our culinary culture?

The history of chocolate is fascinating and rich. Academics like myself learn more about it every day.

Most chocolate sold today is made from the species a href=”https://www.kew.org/plants/cacao-tree”>em>Theobroma cacao/em>/a>. Still, Indigenous peoples in South America, Central America, and Mexico make food, drink, and medicine with many other genera. The majority of chocolate sold today comes from the species Theobroma cacao. However, Indigenous peoples throughout South America, Central America, and Mexico use many other Theobroma varieties to make food, drinks, and medicines.

Indigenous Mesoamerican with tools to prepare and serve the chocolate. Philippe Sylvestre Dufour, John Carter Brown Library at Brown University. Author provided

Cacao was domesticated 4,000 years ago at least, first in the Amazon Basin and then in Central America. The oldest evidence of cacao, dating back to 3,500 BCE, comes from EcuadorVessels containing cacao residues can be traced back to Mexico and Central America as far as 1,900 BCE.

In many Mesoamerican languages (Mexico and Central America), cacao is used to refer to the tree, its seed, and the products that are made from it. People who use the word pay homage and acknowledge the ancient Indigenous past. The term cacao is used to describe a variety of baked goods made from flour, water, and yeast.

Mesoamericans used cacao in many ways for thousands of years: as an offering to rituals, a medicine and an ingredient of both everyday and special occasion food and drinks – all of which were given different names. One of the local, special cacao concoctions called “chocolat”.

Colonialists, currency and colonialism

How did the chocolate boom spread so quickly when its origins were neglected for so long? In the 16th Century, colonists in Latin America from Europe and Africa used cacao as currency, not to eat or consume.

In my research, cacao was used as currency, and it played a crucial role as a small coin in pre-Colombian Mesoamerica. Rio Ceniza Valley in western El Salvador, a region that is now a large cacao-producing area, was one of only four centres with high production levels in the 13th Century.

Spanish colonists made cacao money, a convenient and reliable currency for all types of transactions, legal tender. They were initially hesitant to eat the substance and questioned its flavour and health effects. Rio Ceniza Valley, then known by its Indigenous name Izalcos, became famous for being the place where money was found on trees, and new colonists were able to make fortunes. The local drink of cacao was called “chocolat”.

Cacao pods. Anthony Ratcliffe/Alamy

The world is your oyster

By the end of the 16th Century, despite a slow start, chocolate was wildly popular in Europe. Chocolate was one of the most popular new tastes from America. Drinking chocolate was a great way to socialise.

The word became associated with sinfulness and luxury, but also with healthful properties, which boosted fertility and beauty. In the 1600s Europeans began using the term chocolate to describe sweets, drinks, and sauces with cacao flavours.

Soon, chocolate began to influence the way people lived. According to Spanish literature scholar Carolyn Nadeau , “Before chocolate, breakfast wasn’t a communal affair like lunch or dinner was.” As chocolate became more popular in Spain, so did breakfast. As a late-night or mid-afternoon snack, it was popular with fried bread or bread rolls. This is the origin of the breakfast.

In the 18th Century, chocolate recipes were found in European cookbooks at every level of society. Enslaved Africans grew cacao on plantations in Latin America and then in West Africa. This was far from its indigenous Central American origins. Chocolate became a powerful symbol of class, gender, and race for both chocolate makers and consumers. Chocolate became a symbol of blackness.

Globalization has exacerbated the already existing inequalities. In Europe, North America, and Canada, for example, 75% is consumed by chocolate. However, 100% of cocoa produced in the world comes from Black, Indigenous, and Latin American people. These areas consume only 25%, and Africans the least, at 4%.

The majority of the cocoa is produced by hand, and it is a major source of income for up to fifty million people who live in developing countries. The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the situation. The COVID-19 pandemic made things worse.

Large cocoa buyers, traders, and producers reduced or stopped their cocoa purchases for up to two years in order to deal with the uncertain consumer demand during the pandemic.

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