Chocolate has a much richer history than most of us realise. Here are a few fascinating facts you might not have known.
1. Without monkeys, there’d be no chocolate
Monkeys aren’t usually the kind of animal you’d want going near your food. But, in fact, we have plenty to thank the monkeys of Central and South America for, because without them there would never have been chocolate.
You see, cacao seeds (usually known as cacao beans) grow inside tough pods on cacao trees. When the pod falls to the ground, the seeds are trapped inside and can’t sprout into a new tree. This is where monkeys come along; they open the pods and eat the sweet fruit inside, but spit out the bitter seeds, allowing cacao trees to reproduce and spread. Thanks, monkeys!
2. Cacao was once worshipped as a gift from the gods
Ancient Mesoamerican cultures from about 3500 years ago had such a strong relationship with cacao that they attached a divine significance to it. This was probably because of the mood-enhancing and healing nutrients in cacao, which gave those who consumed it a ‘buzz’ that was considered spiritual. Cacao was consumed as part of holy rituals – including human sacrifices – and was also used for medicinal purposes, but was only accessible to the upper strata of society.
Nowadays chocolate is widely seen as a treat, not a spiritual experience. However, that ancient connection to the divine lives on in cacao’s scientific name: Theobroma Cacao. It literally translates as ‘Cacao, the food of the gods’.
3. Cacao beans were also used as currency
The extremely high importance placed on cacao by Mesoamerican peoples meant that societies wanted more of it and began to horde cacao beans. Their value increased and they became an important asset for trade – so much so that by the age of the Classic Maya civilisation (250–900AD) they had become actual currency.
Territory was disputed, battles were fought and lives were lost to gain control of this incredible food. Imagine that – entire civilisations have risen and fallen thanks to a food we can now find for a few pounds at any corner shop.
4. Solid chocolate did not exist until 1847
For the first several thousand years of its existence in Mesoamerican cultures, chocolate was consumed only as a drink. To create the drink, the cacao beans were first fermented, dried and roasted, as they still are today in the chocolate-making process. They were then ground down, mixed with spices and consumed as a nourishing, bitter drink.
Even after cacao was first brought to Europe in 1529, it was consumed only in liquid form, although with flavours such as sugar, cinnamon and nutmeg, which better suited the palate of European elites. If you want to trace the evolution of the hot chocolate drink, pick up one of our Time Traveller kits, on sale at the moment for £15 (plus postage).
5. The word ‘cocoa’ might be one of history’s greatest spelling mistakes
Most of us grow up spelling chocolate’s main ingredient as ‘cocoa’, but the historically correct term – and the one we Chocolutionaries prefer to use – is cacao. So how did this confusion come about?
It’s thought that when cacao first started arriving in England, uneducated dock workers had trouble reading the labels on sacks of beans. To them, ‘cacao’ looked and sounded similar to another tropical import they were used to – ‘coconut’ – and eventually this new product became a mix between the two words: ‘cocoa’, a name that spread throughout the country.
Nowadays the two words can be used pretty much interchangeably, with the exception that the cacao tree can only be referred to as Theobroma CACAO, and the sweetened hot chocolate powder many of us drink is COCOA.
If you want to learn more about the fascinating history of chocolate, grab one of our chocolate exploration kits, now on sale for £15. Many thanks to one of our closest Chocolutionaries, Ruairidh Wilkinson, for his tireless research into the amazing story of chocolate.
Viva la Chocolution!