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A Brief History of Chocolate

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By LAURA REGE

This Valentine's Day stores are stocked with all things chocolate.  From chocolate hearts to chocolate bonbons to chocolate covered fruits, it's easy to be overwhelmed by the abundance and variety of chocolate candies out there.

Chocolate was not always this accessible.   It was once an elusive product used by the rich and elite as a true indicator of power and wealth.

Aztec Chocolate: A Currency

Chocolate consumption dates back to the early Atzec Empire, around the 14th century, when chocolate was valued so highly that it was used as a form of currency. The royals kept vaults filled with cocoa beans to pay attendants and acquire goods.  Because of its worth, chocolate consumption was reserved mostly for religious ceremonies and royal celebrations.

The Aztecs' chocolate concoctions were strikingly different from those found in chocolate stores and markets today.  Instead they prepared bitter drinks made of ground cocoa beans and various spices.

Spanish Chocolate: A National Secret

Europe's discovery of chocolate came about from a series of mishaps.  In 1519, the Spanish explorer Cortez arrived on Aztec land in search of gold at the same time that the Aztecs were expecting the god of cocoa to reappear. While Cortez did not find gold, he was welcomed with gifts and a goblet of their chocolate drink. His distaste for the bitter beverage did not stop him from bringing the beans back to Spain once he realized they were the backbone of the Aztec economy.

Cortez presented the king with his treasure. When he tried it, he suggested the addition of sugar, exactly what the drink needed to appeal to the Spanish palate.

For about a century the Spanish kept the beverage a secret, building plantations abroad and enjoying the beverage at home amongst members of high society.

Chocolate's Official Introduction

In 1615 when Spanish Princess Anna of Austria married the French King Louis XIII she gave him and the rest of France the gift of chocolate. The habit of drinking chocolate quickly took hold in French society and moved its way across the European elite.

The rest of society was introduced to chocolate when a Frenchman opened the first chocolate house in London in 1657. Despite the high price tag, the drink was now available to the general public and anyone could come and enjoy it. As more chocolate establishments opened, chocolate slowly became a beverage as common as coffee or tea.

Demand for chocolate was high in Europe and abroad. In the 17th century, the industrial revolution changed the face of chocolate, as manufacturers began branding and developing technology to transform chocolate from a drink to a treat.

While the options are plentiful and chocolate seems to be delicious in every shape and form, perhaps it would be fun to explore its roots and indulge in a spicy chocolate beverage, like the Aztecs did.

Sources:

Chocolate: An Illustrated History by Marcia Morton

Chocolate: The Sweet History by Beth Kimmerle

Laura Rege is a chef and writer from New York City.

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