Chocolate’s Delicious History

For centuries, people have craved a certain sweet taste in their desserts as the winter holidays approach. The delicious taste of chocolate has become associated with wintertime, but this link did not happen instantly. Chocolate’s popularity with Europeans was born of the Age of Exploration, years of experimenting with recipes and ideas, and the modern era of mass-produced candy. Many recipes have been developed, but the allure of chocolate remains constant. Join us at CRRL as we explore the history of the world’s favorite sweet and take a look at our collection of books on chocolate!

Drink of the New World: The First Chocolate

The earliest human consumption of chocolate was quite a long time ago and predated European discovery of the Americas by hundreds of years. The first people known to enjoy chocolate were the Olmecs, opens a new window, the first civilization to inhabit the coast, opens a new window of Mexico. Olmec civilization, opens a new window flourished from 1500 to 400 BC, but, since it vanished before the Columbian Exchange, opens a new window, our knowledge about it is based on archaeology and the cultures of later civilizations. Chocolate was first drunk from clay jars called tecomates, opens a new window. Traces of theobromine, opens a new window, a chemical from cacao plants, are associated with Olmec burial sites, suggesting that cacao was consumed during important rituals. 

Mesoamerican Plants, Cuisine, and Medicine

As time passed, chocolate’s links to religion and social status among Mesoamerican cultures deepened. The shape of drinking vessels changed from the small, rounded Olmec tecomates to tall beakers used by the Aztec and Mayan peoples. These beakers were often richly decorated, opens a new window, indicating their importance and scarcity. Chocolate was so valuable that cacao beans were used as a form of currency, opens a new window in the lands of the Mayans and Aztecs. Chocolate in Mesoamerica was always in the form of a drink, was often bitter, opens a new window (similar to our dark chocolate), and sometimes flavored with chiles.  

In some ways, the preparation of chocolate in Mesoamerica was much like it is today. The process of preparing the cacao beans by drying, fermenting, and roasting them is still used today by some small artisanal companies. However, Aztecs and Mayans did not use any sweetener stronger than honey in their chocolate recipes, preferring strong spices like vanilla and cinnamon instead. Since the Aztecs and Mayans used no dairy products in the preparation of their chocolate, either, the taste would be virtually unrecognizable to most people of today. 

Taste of Joy: The Europeans and Early Chocolate

Chocolate found its way into the European diet once the Spanish ventured into the Valley of Mexico. Early accounts of chocolate by the Spanish portrayed it in exotic and not terribly appealing ways; the Jesuit missionary Jose de Acosta, opens a new window wrote that chocolate was “loathsome” to people not used to its taste and described the taste of the traditional Aztec froth as “very unpleasant.” Chocolate’s first appeal to Europeans may have been rooted in its scarcity, opens a new window; the drink was associated with the Aztec nobility and was difficult to obtain. Exports of cacao beans from the New World to the port of Seville, opens a new window began at around 1580.  

Only the nobility of Spain could afford chocolate at first, and it became popular among them--not because of its bitter taste, but because it was believed to be a medicine. People believed that chocolate’s bitterness meant that it could cure all manner of intestinal diseases and even act as an aphrodisiac, opens a new window. Chocolate would only become popular as food rather than “medicine” among the Spanish once new recipes were created that sweetened, opens a new window the chocolate with honey or cane sugar.

For the first 100 years, opens a new window, chocolate was only popular in Spain, and the recipes were unknown in the rest of Europe. It would start to become popular in other European countries as a result of diplomacy and marriages of the Spanish nobility to other European nobility. Anne of Austria’s marriage, opens a new window to Louis XIII of France was one of the first times chocolate was enjoyed outside of Spain, and the joy of chocolate began to spread across Europe.  The next step in chocolate’s evolution would come not from Spain, but from Britain. The chocolate company J.S. Fry & Sons, opens a new window would be the next great innovator, beginning with patenting a process of grinding cocoa beans with a steam engine. In 1847, opens a new window, Fry would first combine the cocoa powder from the grinding process with sugar to form the world’s first chocolate bar. By 1849, opens a new window, Cadbury would enter with a competing chocolate bar, and the competition of chocolate bars (then still called “eatin.g chocolate'') had begun. The first chocolate bar with a filling, Fry’s Chocolate Cream, opens a new window, was introduced in 1866 and is still manufactured by Cadbury in the U.K. 

Inside A Factory

20th-Century Wonders

A new recipe to create even sweeter chocolate came from Switzerland. Daniel Peter, opens a new window created a new type of chocolate he called “Gala,” after the Greek phrase “from the milk,” in 1887. The creation of milk chocolate was a decades-long process that required a precise understanding of chemistry and mathematics for the chocolate to mix and to ensure the milk would not become rancid. Peter’s milk chocolate became popular all over Europe, and, in 1904, opens a new window, the Nestle corporation would take over exporting duties for Peter’s chocolate. This would begin Nestle’s long history as a chocolate manufacturer.

Food, Science, and the Human Body

Across the world, businessmen would enter the chocolate industry to sell all sorts of chocolate bars and sweets. Successful caramel manufacturer Milton Hershey, opens a new window would join the chocolate game in 1894 and produced his first solid milk chocolate bar in 1900, opens a new window. In Canada, Ganong Bros, opens a new window. would come to dominate the chocolate market, inventing the heart-shaped box for Valentine’s Day chocolate and creating the first two-piece individually wrapped chocolate bar, the Pal-O-Mine, opens a new window.”

As the 20th century continued, chocolate companies experimented with more types of fillings for their chocolate bars. Mars, opens a new window would find early success in 1923 with the Milky Way, opens a new window, a bar designed to taste like a chocolate malt milkshake. In 1928, former Hershey’s employee H.B. Reese, opens a new window would mix chocolate and peanut butter to create his “penny cups,” which would become an instant hit and remain popular to this day.

It was very difficult to preserve chocolate on battlefields, but the British chocolate company Rowntree’s would solve this problem with the creation of Smarties, opens a new window, candy-shelled chocolate that was popular among soldiers in the Spanish Civil War. Forrest Mars Sr. saw how popular Smarties were and cloned the candy, selling it exclusively to American soldiers during World War II and calling his version M&Ms, opens a new window.  

The later 20th century and early 21st century have seen many innovations in the flavors and fillings of chocolate. Cadbury Creme Eggs, opens a new window, a favorite at Easter, first appeared in 1963. The beloved Twix, opens a new window bar, with its caramel and cookie filling, first appeared in the UK in 1967 and in the U.S. in 1979. Dark chocolate, opens a new window has begun to regain popularity in recent decades, both for its health benefits and its distinctive taste.  Many companies have begun to offer dark chocolate bars with over 70% cacao, opens a new window to serve this market niche.

No one can predict what the next exciting trend in chocolate will be, but while you wait for it, check out CRRL’s collection on chocolate. You’ll find a history as delicious as it is fascinating!

CRRL Picks: Chocolate!

Books on the rich and sometimes dark history of chocolate.

View Full List