Cocoa and Chocolate—A Sketch of their History

Did time and space allow, there is much to be told on the romantic side of chocolate, of its divine origin, of the bloody wars and brave exploits of the Spaniards who conquered Mexico and were the first to introduce cacao into Europe, tales almost too thrilling to be believed, of the intrigues of the Spanish Court, and of celebrities who met and sipped their chocolate in the parlours of the coffee and chocolate houses so fashionable in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

On opening a cacao pod, it is seen to be full of beans surrounded by a fruity pulp, and whilst the pulp is very pleasant to taste, the beans themselves are uninviting, so that doubtless the beans were always thrown away until … someone tried roasting them. One pictures this “someone,” a pre-historic Aztec with swart skin, sniffing the aromatic fume coming from the roasting beans, and thinking that beans which smelled so appetising must be good to consume. The name of the man who discovered the use of cacao must be written in some early chapter of the history of man, but it is blurred and unreadable: all we know is that he was an inhabitant of the New World and probably of Central America.

Original Home of Cacao

The corner of the earth where the cacao tree originally grew, and still grows wild to-day, is the country watered by the mighty Amazon and the Orinoco. This is the very region in which Orellano, the Spanish adventurer, said that he had truly seen El Dorado, which he described as a City of Gold, roofed with gold, and standing by a lake with golden sands. In reality, El Dorado was nothing but a vision, a vision that for a hundred years fascinated all manner of dreamers and adventurers from Sir Walter Raleigh downwards, so that many braved great hardships in search of it, groped through the forests where the cacao tree grew, and returned to Europe feeling they had failed. To our eyes they were not entirely unsuccessful, for whilst they failed to find a city of gold, they discovered the home of the golden pod.

Montezuma—the First Great Patron of Chocolate

When Columbus discovered the New World he brought back with him to Europe many new and curious things, one of which was cacao. Some years later, in 1519, the Spanish conquistador, Cortes, landed in Mexico, marched into the interior and discovered to his surprise, not the huts of savages, but a beautiful city, with palaces and museums. This city was the capital of the Aztecs, a remarkable people, notable alike for their ancient civilisation and their wealth. Their national drink was chocolate, and Montezuma, their Emperor, who lived in a state of luxurious magnificence, took no other beverage than the chocolatl, a potation of chocolate, flavoured with vanilla and other spices, and so prepared as to be reduced to a froth of the consistency of honey, which gradually dissolved in the mouth and was taken cold. This beverage if so it could be called, was served in golden goblets, with spoons of the same metal or tortoise-shell finely wrought. The Emperor was exceedingly fond of it, to judge from the quantity—no less than fifty jars or pitchers being prepared for his own daily consumption: two thousand more were allowed for that of his household. It is curious that Montezuma took no other beverage than chocolate, especially if it be true that the Aztecs also invented that fascinating drink, the cocktail (xoc-tl). How long this ancient people, students of the mysteries of culinary science, had known the art of preparing a drink from cacao, is not known, but it is evident that the cultivation of cacao received great attention in these parts, for if we read down the list of the tributes paid by different cities to the Lords of Mexico, we find “20 chests of ground chocolate, 20 bags of gold dust,” again “80 loads of red chocolate, 20 lip-jewels of clear amber,” and yet again “200 loads of chocolate.” Another people that share with the Aztecs the honour of being the first great cultivators of cacao are the Incas of Peru, that wonderful nation that knew not poverty.

The Fascination of Chocolate

That chocolate charmed the ladies of Mexico in the seventeenth century (even as it charms the ladies of England to-day) is shown by a story which Gage relates in his New Survey of the West Indias (1648). He tells us that at Chiapa, southward from Mexico, the women used to interrupt both sermon and mass by having their maids bring them a cup of hot chocolate; and when the Bishop, after fair warning, excommunicated them for this presumption, they changed their church. The Bishop, he adds, was poisoned for his pains.

Cacao Beans as Money

Cacao was used by the Aztecs not only for the preparation of a beverage, but also as a circulating medium of exchange. For example, one could purchase a  slave for 100 beans. Their currency consisted of transparent quills of gold dust, of bits of tin cut in the form of a T, and of bags of cacao containing a specified number of grains.

Derivation of Chocolate

The word was derived from the Mexican chocolatl. The Mexicans used to froth their chocolatl with curious whisks made specially for the purpose.  Choco, choco, choco is a vocal representation of the sound made by stirring chocolate. The suffix atl means water. We owe the name of chocolate to a misprint. Joseph Acosta, who wrote as early as 1604 of chocolatl, was made by the printer to write chocolaté, from which the English eliminated the accent, and the French the final letter.

First Cacao in Europe

The Spanish discoverers of the New World brought home to Spain quantities of cacao, which the curious tasted. We may conclude that they drank the preparation cold, as Montezuma did, hot chocolate being a later invention. The new drink, eagerly sought by some, did not meet with universal approval, and, as was natural, the most diverse opinions existed as to the pleasantness and wholesomeness of the beverage when it was first known. Thus Joseph Acosta (1604) wrote: “The chief use of this cocoa is in a drincke which they call Chocholaté, whereof they make great account, foolishly and without reason; for it is loathsome to such as are not acquainted with it, having a skumme or frothe that is very unpleasant to taste, if they be not well conceited thereof. Yet it is a drincke very much esteemed among the Indians, whereof they feast noble men as they passe through their country. The Spaniards, both men and women, that are accustomed to the country are very greedy of this chocholaté.” It is not impossible that the English, with the defeat of the Armada fresh in memory, were at first contemptuous of this “Spanish” drink. Certain it is, that when British sea-rovers like Drake and Frobisher, captured Spanish galleons on the high seas, and on searching their holds for treasure, found bags of cacao, they flung them overboard in scorn. In considering this scorn of cacao, shown alike by British buccaneers and Dutch corsairs, together with the critical air of Joseph Acosta, we should remember the original chocolatl of the Mexicans consisted of a mixture of maize and cacao with hot spices like chillies, and contained no sugar. In this condition few inhabitants of the temperate zone could relish it. It however only needed one thing, the addition of sugar, and the introduction of this marked the beginning of its European popularity. The Spaniards were the first to manufacture and drink chocolate in any quantity. To this day they serve it in the old style—thick as porridge and pungent with spices. They endeavoured to keep secret the method of preparation, and, without success, to retain the manufacture as a monopoly. Chocolate was introduced into Italy by Carletti, who praised it and spread the method of its manufacture abroad. The new drink was introduced by monks from Spain into Germany and France, and when in 1660 Maria Theresa, Infanta of Spain, married Louis XIV, she made chocolate well known at the Court of France. She it was of whom a French historian wrote that Maria Theresa had only two passions—the king and chocolate.

Chocolate was advocated by the learned physicians of those times as a cure for many diseases, and it was stated that Cardinal Richelieu had been cured of general atrophy by its use.

From France the use of chocolate spread into England, where it began to be drunk as a luxury by the aristocracy about the time of the Commonwealth. It must have made some progress in public favour by 1673, for in that year “a Lover of his Country” wrote in the Harleian Miscellany demanding its prohibition (along with brandy, rum, and tea) on the ground that this imported article did no good and hindered the consumption of English-grown barley and wheat. New things appeal to the imaginative, and the absence of authentic knowledge concerning them allows free play to the imagination—so it happened that in the early days, whilst many writers vied with one another in writing glowing panegyrics on cacao, a few thought it an evil thing. Thus, whilst it was praised by many for its “wonderful faculty of quenching thirst, allaying hectic heats, of nourishing and fattening the body,” it was seriously condemned by others as an inflamer of the passions!

Chocolate Houses and Clubs

In the spacious days of Queen Elizabeth, tea, coffee, and chocolate were unknown save to travellers and savants, and the handmaidens of the good queen drank beer with their breakfast. When Shakespeare and Ben Jonson forgathered at the Mermaid Tavern, their winged words passed over tankards of ale, but later other drinks became the usual accompaniment of news, story, and discussion. In the sixteen-sixties there were no strident newspapers to destroy one’s equanimity, and the gossip of the day began to be circulated and discussed over cups of tea, coffee, or chocolate. The humorists, ever stirred by novelty, tilted, pen in hand, at these new drinks: thus one rhymster described coffee as “Syrrop of soot or essence of old shoes.” The first coffee-house in London was started in St. Michael’s Alley, Cornhill, in 1652 (when coffee was seven shillings a pound); the first tea-house was opened in Exchange Alley in 1657 (when tea was five sovereigns a pound), and in the same year (with chocolate about ten to fifteen shillings per pound) a Frenchman opened the first chocolate-house in Queen’s Head Alley, Bishopsgate Street. The rising popularity of chocolate led to the starting of more of these chocolate houses, at which one could sit and sip chocolate, or purchase the commodity for preparation at home. Pepys’ entry in his diary for 24th November, 1664, contains: “To a coffee house to drink jocolatte, very good.” It is an artless entry, and yet one can almost hear him smacking his lips. Silbermann says that “After the Restoration there were shops in London for the sale of chocolate at ten shillings or fifteen shillings per pound. Ozinda’s chocolate house was full of aristocratic consumers. Comedies, satirical essays, memoirs and private letters of that age frequently mention it. The habit of using chocolate was deemed a token of elegant and fashionable taste, and while the charms of this beverage in the reigns of Queen Anne and George I. were so highly esteemed by courtiers, by lords and ladies and fine gentlemen in the polite world, the learned physicians extolled its medicinal virtues.” From the coffee house and its more aristocratic relative the chocolate house, there developed a new feature in English social life—the Club. As the years passed the Chocolate House remained a rendezvous, but the character of its habitués changed from time to time. Thus one, famous in the days of Queen Anne, and well known by its sign of the “Cocoa Tree,” was at first the headquarters of the Jacobite party, and the resort of Tories of the strictest school. It became later a noted gambling house (“The gamesters shook their elbows in White’s and the chocolate houses round Covent Garden,” National Review, 1878), and ultimately developed into a literary club, including amongst its members Gibbon, the historian, and Byron, the poet.

Tax on Cacao

The growing consumption of chocolate did not escape the all-seeing eye of the Chancellors of England. As early as 1660 we find amongst various custom and excise duties granted to Charles II: For every gallon of chocolate, sherbet, and tea made and sold, to be paid by the maker thereof ….. 8d.” Later the raw material was also made a source of revenue. In The Humble Memorial of Joseph Fry, of Bristol, Maker of Chocolate, which was addressed to the Lords Commissioners of the Treasury in 1776 (Messrs. Fry and Sons are the oldest English firm of chocolate makers, having been founded in 1728), we read that “Chocolate … pays two shillings and threepence per pound excise, besides about ten shillings per hundredweight on the Cocoa Nuts from which it is made.” In 1784 a preferential customs rate was proposed in favour of our Colonies. This they enjoyed for many years before 1853, when the uniform rate, until recently in force, was introduced. This restrictive tariff on foreign growths rose in 1803 to 5s. 10d. per pound, against 1s. 10d. on cacao grown in British possessions. From this date it gradually diminished. High duties hampered for many years the sale of cocoa, tea and coffee, but in recent times these duties have been brought down to more reasonable figures. For many years before 1915 the import duty was 1d. per pound on the raw cacao beans, 1d. per pound on cacao butter, and 2s. a hundredweight (less than a farthing a pound) on cacao shells or husks. In the Budget of September, 1915, the above duties were increased by fifty per cent. A further and greater increase was made in the Budget of April, 1916, when cacao was made to pay a higher tax in Britain than in any other country in the world. In 1919 Imperial preference was introduced after a break of over sixty years, the duty on cocoa from foreign countries being 3/4d. a pound more than that from British Possessions.

Introduction of Cocoa Powder

The drink “cocoa” as we know it today was not introduced until 1828. Before this time the ground bean, mixed with sugar, was sold in cakes. The beverage prepared from these chocolate cakes was very rich in butter, and whilst the British Navy has always consumed it in this condition (the sailors generally remove with a spoon the excess of butter which floats to the top) it is a little heavy for less hardy digestions. Van Houten (of the well-known Dutch house of that name) in 1828 invented a method of pressing out part of the butter, and thus obtained a lighter, more appetising, and more easily assimilated preparation. As the butter is useful in chocolate manufacture, this process enabled the manufacturer to produce a less costly cocoa powder, and thus the circle of consumers was widened. Messrs. Cadbury Bros., of Birmingham, first sold their “cocoa essence” in 1866, Messrs. Fry and Sons, of Bristol, introduced a pure cocoa by pressing out part of the butter in 1868.