FOOD of the GODS: A Brief Look at the History of the Love for Chocolate

Shana Gardner, CAS, Operations

“Food of the gods.”  We mean that literally—it’s the translation of the Latin name for the cacao tree, Theobroma cacao.  The belief of chocolate as the food of the gods began well before its classification, however.

Popular belief holds chocolate as having originated in Mesoamerica, present-day Mexico, with the Olmec civilization around 1400 B.C.  The Olmec prepared a drink used during rituals and as medicine, but it bore little resemblance to modern chocolate; it was foamy and bitter, and not to the taste of the first Europeans to be introduced to the drink—but we’ll get into that later.  Centuries after the Olmec began turning cacao beans into chocolate, the Mayans consumed it mixed with chilies, water, and cornmeal, a beverage they called “xocolatl,” the original of the modern term, “chocolate.”

The most common legend of how chocolate left the Americas is that it was introduced to Hernán Cortés during an expedition to the court of Montezuma.  When he returned to Spain, he brought cacao seeds with him.  The “bitter water” the seeds were traditionally made into wasn’t to the taste of the Spanish until they mixed it with honey and cane sugar to sweeten it, which is how it became popular amongst the upper echelons of Spanish society.  Almost a century later, the treat finally spread to France and the rest of Europe.

For centuries, chocolate remained the domain of European aristocracy; members of the upper classes enjoyed the decadent treat for its health benefits, as well as the experience it provided.  It wasn’t until the early-nineteenth century that chocolate was introduced to everyone, with the invention of the chocolate press.  Names that became all but synonymous with chocolate—Henri Nestlé, Rodolphe Lindt, and Milton Hershey, among others—developed ground-breaking processes and technology that allowed chocolate to be mass-produced.

Now, chocolate can be found on the shelves of stores around the world, often customized to regional tastebuds—from Matcha Kit Kats in Japan to the Chuao Spicy Maya bar in Venezuela, Violet Crumble in Australia to Sambó Þristur in Iceland.

As an American visiting Japan, I found this out the hard way.  I purchased a bag of Kit Kats at a convenience store near the housing I was staying in and assumed (without reading the bag too closely) that it was filled with chocolate, strawberry, and mint.  I got two out of the three right—the green-wrapped Kit Kats were, in fact, matcha-flavored.  Needless to say, the realization was something of a shock, as matcha and mint are far from similar flavor profiles!

Even countries in close proximity can have different flavors.  A friend of mine in New Jersey is always asking another friend in Ontario to send him Kit Kats, as Canadian Kit Kats are made with a different type of chocolate than Kit Kats in the US.

Chocolate continues to evolve as tastes change, but science can also influence the chocolate you find for sale.  Studies have shown that dark chocolate (in moderation) can improve your overall health and lower the risk of heart disease, leading to an increased demand for chocolate higher in cacao and lower in sugar.  (Experts recommend that the chocolate be 70% cacao or higher for the most benefit.)

Maple Ridge Farms offers several dark chocolate options for those who prefer that stronger, more bitter flavor.  Check out our Dark Chocolate Sea Salt Caramels and Dark Chocolate Sea Salt Almond Turtles to start!

Whether you like your chocolate dark or milk, a solid bar or wrapped around confectionary goodness, it comes with the same rich history.  Enjoy it as a beverage evocative of its Mesoamerican roots or as part of a delicious food gift.  There is no wrong way!

What’s your favorite way to enjoy chocolate?  Let us know on social media!

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