The history of chocolate, that rich and sensuous (and to some, addictive) substance, begins in the ancient and mysterious realm of the Maya civilisation who lived in Central America around 4th century AD. The cacao tree from which chocolate is derived was first cultivated by these early Mesoamerican people and not the Aztecs as is commonly believed.
The Maya called the cacao tree cacahuaquchtl which literally means “tree”, so important was the cacao tree to their spiritual and everyday lives that there was no other tree worth naming. Mayans believed the cacao tree belonged to the gods and the pods were used in various religious rituals. Cacao was referred to as food of the gods in ancient Mayan writings. The Maya were the first to make a bitter beverage from cacao beans which was a luxury drink only enjoyed by kings and nobles. The drink was flavoured with various spices, the most popular being chilli.
After the unexplained fall of the Mayan empire around 900 AD, the gifted and extremely civilised Toltecs followed by the Aztecs from Mexico settled in former Mayan territory. The Toltec king Quetzalcoatl was believed to be a god whose mission was to teach mortals how to cultivate cacao. Following political uprising and ill health, Quetzalcoatl went mad and sailed out to sea on a raft, leaving his kingdom but promising to return one day. The story of Quetzalcoatl’s exile entered Aztec mythology and ancient astrologers predicted that in 1519 a white-faced king would return to recover his kingdom.
The Spanish explorer Hernan Cortes is generally considered to be the first European to recognise the potential of Aztec chocolate. When his expedition arrived in the New World in 1519, the Aztec emperor Montezuma II believed Cortes was the reincarnation of the god-king Quetzalcoatl whose return had been predicted to occur in the same year. The confusion was used by Cortes to his advantage and he overthrew Montezuma and after only three years he brought about the downfall of the entire Aztec empire. Cortes was quick to realise the economic value the cacao bean which by this point was used as currency as well as a highly prized drink. The Spanish Jesuits called the beans “pecuniary almonds” and noted that a slave could be bought for 100 beans. Cortes set up cacao plantations all over the Caribbean and literally grew money on trees making the Spanish colonists very rich and very powerful.
The 18th century Swedish botanist Linnaeus, who invented the binomial classification system for all living things, later named this amazing tree Theobroma cacao, meaning “drink of the gods”, from the Greek theos (god) and broma (beverage). He thought it deserved a name which reflected the Mayan belief that the tree belonged to the gods.
The Spanish couldn’t keep the secret of cacao cultivation and preparation to themselves for long and soon chocolate became popular in other European countries who in turn established their own plantations, trade routes and processing facilities. The Dutch, French, British and Portuguese all settled in equatorial regions where the weather favoured the cultivation of transplanted cacao trees.
Check back next Saturday for the next instalment in my Chocolate Series.
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