An ancient history lies behind modern-day chocolate; a treat once worshipped, worn and used as currency
Anthropologists have attributed the earliest use of cacao to the Mayan and Olmec civilisations, dating as far back as 1,000 BC. Used in religious rituals and as paint on faces, chocolate was considered nectar from the heavens. The Mayans believed the pods that grow on the cacao tree were a divine offering from the gods and would often paint images of them on the walls of temples. Early civilisations enjoyed cacao in the form of a cold gruel-like beverage infused with a variety of additional flavours including chilli and aniseed.
Cacao—which contains powerful antioxidants—has long been celebrated for its health benefits. During the 16th century, Italian traveller Girolamo Benzoni wrote about how the Aztecs would ‘spend all the day and half the night dancing with only cacao for nourishment’. In the 1650s, monks were convinced that the supposed energy-boosting properties found in cacao could sustain them during their religious fasting rituals. As cacao was introduced into Europe, its taste was refined and sugars were added to satisfy the more delicate European palate.
The impetus for chocolate spread throughout Europe in the 17th century and became the prime indulgence for the aristocracy. Mendacious claims that the sweet treat was a powerful aphrodisiac were propagated by the media and certain medical professionals. Dr Henry Stubbs, author of The Natural History of Chocolate (1662), would often prepare vanilla-flavoured chocolate drinks for self-professed chocoholic, King Charles II. The king, reputed for his affairs, appreciated the product’s apparent stimulant qualities and had reportedly bought copious amounts to facilitate his insatiable habit. Dr Stubbs, who described the crop as ‘Indian nectar’, developed a chocolate sap that he believed could cure ‘hysterical fits, hypochondriacal melancholy, love passions, consumptive pinings away and spermatical fevers’. He recommended to his male patients that they apply the balm onto the testicles to encourage erections and healthy sperm production.
During the 1600s, high-end chocolate houses like The Cocoa Tree and White’s Chocolate House began sprouting up throughout London in the city’s trendiest districts. The beverages sold back then bore little to no resemblance to the milky, sweet hot chocolates served in coffee houses today. While chocolate was technically readily available to all, it was expensive and the exclusivity of the houses in which it was sold meant that it was largely bought by the aristocracy and British elite. These affluent chocolate houses were gregarious gentlemen’s clubs and dens of iniquity. During the 1700s, The Cocoa Tree was the regular haunt of the Tory party—a space where politicians would discuss policies in a smoke fog over chocolate drinks. White’s Chocolate House, which still stands at 37 St James’s Street, was dubbed ‘the most fashionable hell in London’ and frequented by Whigs and writers. As prestigious as it was back in the day, White’s now has a membership of 500 and a nine-year waiting list for new members.
It wasn’t until the 19th century that chocolate started being consumed as a solid. Confectionary giant Cadbury Brothers Limited became chief purveyors of chocolate to Queen Victoria during her reign, while its competitor J. S. Fry & Sons—the largest chocolatiers in the world at this time—were the sole providers of chocolate to the British navy. Queen Victoria commissioned Cadbury Brothers Limited, J. S. Fry & Sons and Rowntree & Company Limited to produce and distribute tins of chocolate to her soldiers serving in South Africa in 1899 and 1900. These core chocolatiers are still at the very heart of the British chocolate industry.
Today, Brits consume a staggering 16.3 pounds of chocolate per capita each year with Valentine’s, Easter and Christmas being the main festivities during which it’s enjoyed. West Africa has been the centre for worldwide cocoa production for over 60 years, with Ghana producing 25 percent of the world’s cocoa alone. Perhaps one of the most perfect culinary achievements in the world, the history of chocolate is as rich and decadent as its flavour. •