A Brief History of Chocolate

Chocolate Through the Years
The story of chocolate, as far back as we understand it, begins with the discovery of America. Until 1492, the Old World knew nothing at all about the delicious and stimulating flavor that was to become the favorite treat of millions.

The Court of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella got its first look at the principal ingredient of chocolate when Columbus returned in triumph from America and laid before the Spanish throne a treasure trove of many strange and wonderful things. Among these were a few dark brown beans that looked like almonds and seemed most unpromising. These were cocoa beans, todays source of all our chocolate and cocoa.

The King and Queen never dreamed how important cocoa beans could be, and it was left up to Hernando Cortez, the great Spanish explorer, to grasp the commercial possibilities of this wonderful New World offering.

Food of the Gods
During his conquest of Mexico, Cortez found that the Aztec Indians used cocoa beans in the preparation of the royal drink of the realm, “chocolatl”, meaning warm liquid. In 1519, Emperor Montezuma, who reportedly drank 50 or more portions of the beverage daily, served chocolatl to his Spanish guests in great golden goblets, treating it as a food of the gods. The cacao bean does indeed have very powerful aphrodisiac and health affirming effects, so it is not surprising that it was consumed both as delicacy and medicine.

For all of its regal importance, however, Montezuma’s chocolatl was very bitter, and the Spaniards did not find it to their taste. To make the concoction more agreeable to Europeans, Cortez and his countrymen conceived of the idea of sweetening it with cane sugar.

When they took chocolatl back to Spain, the idea found favor and the drink underwent several more changes with the addition newly discovered spices, such as cinnamon and vanilla. Ultimately, someone decided the drink would taste better if served hot.

This new drink won friends, especially among the Spanish aristocracy. Spain wisely proceeded to plant cocoa in its overseas colonies, which gave birth to a very profitable business. Remarkably enough, the Spanish succeeded in keeping the art of the cocoa industry a secret from the rest of Europe for nearly a hundred years.

Chocolate Spreads to Europe
Spanish monks, who had been consigned to process the cocoa beans, finally let the secret out. It did not take long before chocolate was acclaimed throughout Europe as a delicious, health-giving food. For a while it reigned as the fashionable drink of the Court of France. Chocolate drinking spread across the Channel to Great Britain, and in 1657 the first of many famous English Chocolate Houses appeared.

The hand crafting methods of manufacture used by small shops gave way in time to the mass production of chocolate. The transition was hastened by the advent of a perfected steam engine which mechanized the cocoa grinding process. By 1730, chocolate had dropped in price from three dollars or more per pound to within the financial reach of almost everyone. The invention of the cocoa press in 1828 reduced prices even further and helped to improve the the quality of the beverage by squeezing out part of the cocoa butter, the fat that occurs naturally in cocoa beans. From then on, drinking chocolate had more of the smooth consistency and the pleasing flavor it has today.

The 19th Century marked two more revolutionary developments in the history of chocolate. In 1847, an English company introduced solid “eating chocolate” with their development of fondant chocolate, a smooth and velvety variety that has almost completely replaced the old coarse grained chocolate which formerly dominated the world market. The second development occurred in 1876 in Vevey, Switzerland, when Daniel Peter devised a way of adding milk to the chocolate, creating the product we enjoy today, milk chocolate.

Chocolate Comes To America
In the United States of America, the production of chocolate proceeded at a faster pace than anywhere else in the world. It was in the pre-revolutionary New England — 1765, to be exact — that the first chocolate factory was established.

Chocolate has gained so much importance since that time, that any interruption in its supply would be keenly felt all over the world.

During World War II, the U.S. government recognized chocolate’s role in the nourishment and group spirit of the Allied Armed Forces, so much so that it allocated valuable shipping space for the importation of cocoa beans. Many soldiers were thankful for pocket chocolate bars which gave them the strength to carry on until more food rations could be obtained. Today, the U.S. Army D-rations include three 4-ounce chocolate bars. Chocolate has even been taken into space as part of the diet of U.S. astronauts.

Growing the Cocoa Bean
Cocoa beans are the product of the cacao tree. The origin of the cacao tree is in dispute. Some say it originated in the Amazon basin of Brazil, others place it in the Orinoco Valley of Venezuela, while still others contend that it is native to Central America.

Wherever its first home, we know the cacoa tree is strictly a tropical plant thriving only in hot, rainy climates. Thus, its cultivation is confined to the lands not more than 20 degrees north or south of the equator.

The Need For Shelter
The cacao tree is very delicate and sensitive. It needs protection from the wind and requires a fair amount of shade under most conditions. This is true especially in its first two to four years of growth.

A newly planted cacao seedling is often sheltered by a different type of tree. It is normal to plant food crops for shade such as banana, plantain, coconuts or cocoyams. Rubber trees and forest trees are also used for shade. Once established, however, cacao trees can grow in full sun light, provided there are fertile soil conditions and intensive husbandry. Cacao plantations (trees under cultivation), and estates, usually in valleys or coastal plains, must have evenly distributed rainfall and rich, well drained soil.

As a general rule, cacao trees get their start in a nursery bed where seeds from high yielding trees are planted in fiber baskets or plastic bags. The seedlings grow so fast that in a few months they are ready for transplanting, container and all.

The First Fruit
With pruning and careful cultivation, the trees of most strains will begin bearing fruit in the fifth year. With extreme care, some strains can be induced to yield good crops in the third and fourth years.

Everything about the tree is just as colorful as its history. An evergreen, the cacao tree has large glossy leaves that are red when young and green when mature. Overlays of clinging moss and colorful lichens are often found on the bark of the trunk, and in some areas beautiful small orchids grow on its branches. The tree sprouts thousands of tiny waxy pink or white five-pedaled blossoms that cluster together on the trunk and older branches. But, only three to 10 percent will go on to mature into full fruit.

The fruit, which will eventually be converted into the world’s chocolate and cocoa, has green or sometimes maroon colored pods on the trunk of the tree and its main branches. Shaped somewhat like an elongated melon tapered at both ends, these pods often ripen into a golden color or sometimes take on a scarlet hue with multicolored flecks.

At its maturity, the cultivated tree measures from 15 to 25 feet tall, though the tree in its wild state may reach 60 feet or more.

The potential age of cacao trees is open to speculation. There are individual trees known to be over 200 years of age, but no one has determined the real life span of the species. However, in 25 years the economic usefulness of a tree may be considered at an end, and it often becomes desirable to replant with younger trees.

Varieties of Cacao
While the cacao tree bears fruit (or pods) all year round, harvesting is generally seasonal. The pods come in a variety of types since cacao trees cross-pollinate freely. These types can be reduced to three classifications: Criollo, the prince of cacaos, is a soft thin-skinned pod, with a light color and a unique, pleasant aroma. Forastero, a more plentiful type, is easier to cultivate and has a thick-walled pod and a pungent aroma. Trinitario, which is believed to be a natural cross from strains of the other two types, has a great variety of characteristics but generally possesses good, aromatic flavor; and these trees are particularly suitable for cultivation.

In the Western Hemisphere, strange as it may seem, plantations composed of just one species of cocoa beans are uncommon. Even single trees with all the characteristics of a specific type are rare. Uniformity exists only where cacao plantations have been developed from the rooted branch cuttings of single mother trees.

In recent years, cacao growers have turned increasingly to hybridization as a means of improving the quality of the bean and making it more disease resistant. Scientists using state-of-the-art biotechnology techniques are also trying to improve the quality of cacao and its resistance to disease.

Handling the Harvest
The job of picking ripe cacao pods is not an easy one. The tree is so frail and its roots are so shallow that workmen cannot risk injuring it by climbing to reach the pods on the higher branches.

The planter sends his tumbadores, or pickers, into the fields with long handled, mitten-shaped steel knives that can reach the highest pods and snip them without wounding the soft bark of the tree. Machetes are used for the pods growing within reach on the lower trunk.

Where Experience Counts
It requires training and experience to know by appearance which fruit is ripe and ready to be cut. Ripe pods are found on trees at all times since the growing season in the tropics, with its evenly distributed rainfall, is continuous.

In most localities there is a main harvest lasting several months and a mid-crop harvest lasting several more months. Climatic differences cause wide variations in harvest times with frequent fluctuations from year to year even within the same location.

What Happens after Picking
Gatherers follow the harvesters who have removed the ripe pods from the trees. The pods are collected in baskets and transported to the edge of a field where the pod breaking operation begins. One or two lengthwise blows from a well-wielded machete is usually enough to split open the woody shells. A good breaker can open 500 pods an hour.

A great deal of patience is required to complete harvesting. Anywhere from 20 to 50 cream-colored beans are scooped from a typical pod and the husk and inner membrane are discarded. Dried beans from an average pod weigh less than two ounces, and approximately 400 beans are required to make one pound of chocolate.

The beans are still many steps away from the familiar finished product. Exposure to air quickly changes the cream-colored beans to a lavender or purple. They do not look like the finished chocolate nor do they have the well-known fragrance of chocolate at this time.

Preparing the Crop for Shipment
The cocoa beans or seeds that are removed from the pods are put into boxes or thrown on heaps and covered. Around the beans is a layer of pulp that starts to heat up and ferment. Fermentation lasts from three to nine days and serves to remove the raw bitter taste of cocoa and to develop precursors and components that are characteristic of chocolate flavor.

Fermenting is a simple “yeasting” process in which the sugars contained in the beans are converted to acid, primarily lactic acid and acetic acid.

The process generates temperatures as high as 125 degrees Fahrenheit, which kill the germ of the bean and activate existing enzymes in the beans to form compounds that produce the chocolate flavor when the beans are roasted. The result is a fully developed bean with a rich brown color, a sign that the cocoa is now ready for drying.

Drying is Important
Like any moisture-filled fruit, the beans must be dried if they are to keep. In some countries, drying is accomplished simply by laying the beans on trays or bamboo matting and leaving them to bask in the sun. When moist climate conditions interfere with sun-drying, artificial methods are used. For example, the beans can be carried indoors and dried by hot-air pipes.

With favorable weather the drying process usually takes several days. In this interval, farmers turn the beans frequently and use the opportunity to pick them over for foreign matter and flat, broken or germinated beans. During drying, beans lose nearly all their moisture and more than half their weight.

When the beans are dried, they are prepared for shipping in 130 to 200 pound sacks. They are seldom stored except at shipping centers, where they await inspection by buyers.

Marketing for Export
Buyers sample the quality of a crop by cutting open a number of beans to see that they are properly fermented. Purple centers indicate incomplete fermentation.

If the prevailing crop is found satisfactory, the grower is paid at the current market price. The market price depends not only on the abundance of the worldwide crop and the quality of farmers’ crops in a number of countries, but on a number of economic conditions throughout the world. The industry has set up Cocoa Exchanges, similar to stock exchanges, in principle cities such as New York, London, Hamburg and Amsterdam.

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