20 Downright Bizarre Details About the History of Chocolate that We Love to Sink Our Teeth Into

20 Downright Bizarre Details About the History of Chocolate that We Love to Sink Our Teeth Into

Tim Flight - December 27, 2018

20 Downright Bizarre Details About the History of Chocolate that We Love to Sink Our Teeth Into
Montezuma depicted in Antonio de Solís’s Istoria della conquista del Messico, Spain, 1699. Wikimedia Commons

11. The Aztec emperor Montezuma II drank 50 cups of hot chocolate a day

We have already made mention of the Aztec ruler Montezuma II when recounting how he served Hernán Cortés with chocolate in 1519. But beyond the importance of chocolate to Aztec culture, where it had a similarly divine status as in the earlier Mayan, it is also worth mentioning Montezuma’s personal penchant for the drink. According to legend, he drank 50 cups a day, and more when he was entertaining a woman. Our old friend Bernal Diaz explained that ‘it was said that it gave one power over women’, though quite why a ruler with a harem needed that is unclear.

Montezuma drank his chocolate from a golden goblet. Allegedly, he would habitually enjoy this from his balcony overlooking a lake in Tenochtitlan, and simply fling the vessel in the water once he had finished the chocolate. He never drank from the same vessel twice, and such profligacy doubtless contributed to the enduring legend of El Dorado, the city made of gold. Unlike the Mayan Civilization, chocolate in the Aztec Civilization was a commodity reserved only for the elite, and thought to be aphrodisiac, so these stories may be exaggerations to make Montezuma’s wealth and sexual prowess seem all the greater.

20 Downright Bizarre Details About the History of Chocolate that We Love to Sink Our Teeth Into
Jaguar Claw receives a cup of chocolate from his wife, Flower Snake, in Codex Zouche-Nuttall, Mexico, c.1200-1521. Mexicolore

10. Aztec women were banned from drinking chocolate because it was an aphrodisiac

Whilst it was fine for Montezuma to drink 50 cups of chocolate a day, Aztec women were nowhere near as lucky. Given that beans had to be imported from considerable distances, it was natural that not everyone could be allowed the finished product. Aztec law reserved chocolate only for royalty, nobility, merchants trading far afield, and warriors. And no woman at all was allowed chocolate, supposedly because of the aphrodisiac properties of the beverage. Which is rather unfair, given that Montezuma would have been thought to be in a near-constant state of arousal and hence perpetually searching for new mistresses.

Clearly, as in contemporary European thought, female sexual arousal was not a commendable virtue in Aztec society, though it was to be praised in men. But even if they weren’t allowed to drink it, women were certainly expected to prepare and serve it, as in the illustration above. Montezuma aside, most men only drank chocolate as a dessert at banquets. Beyond morality and social mores, the scarcity and great expense of cacao beans would also have been a factor in the law being passed. After all, some people had to go hungry to provide for Montezuma’s 50-a-day habit.

20 Downright Bizarre Details About the History of Chocolate that We Love to Sink Our Teeth Into

9. The Aztecs literally had chocolate currency

In knocking back 50 gold cups of chocolate a day, Montezuma was doing the Aztec equivalent of lighting a cigar on a burning dollar bill. For cacao beans were so valuable that they also functioned as currency in the Aztec Civilisation. With a few of the treasured beans, one could buy everything from meat to sex. A rabbit would set you back 10 cacao beans, a slave or a female turkey about 100, and a prostitute between 8 and 10 with some skilful bartering. These rates of exchange are not conjecture, but preserved in a 16th-century Aztec document.

At the time of the Spanish conquest (early 16th century), cacao beans were reckoned more valuable than gold. An advantage of using the beans as currency was that they encouraged desire for wealth but not miserliness, with possessors being tempted either to make a lovely drink or to plant them. This was not a fact lost on early Christian observers, such as Peter Martyr in the 16th century: ‘Oh, blessed money which yieldeth sweete and profitable drinke for mankinde, and preserveth the possessors thereof free from the hellish pestilence of avarice because it cannot be long kept hid underground’.

20 Downright Bizarre Details About the History of Chocolate that We Love to Sink Our Teeth Into
An American soldier’s chocolate rations, 1940s. MREInfo

8. Chocolate became popular around the world because it was given to soldiers in WW1 and WW2

In the Aztec Civilization, soldiers were the only commoners to be allowed chocolate, and the confectionary’s role in war did not end there. Starting in WW1, chocolate bars began to appear on the frontlines of modern conflicts. Soldiers fighting on the hellish, muddy battlefields of France and Belgium were sent chocolate as a ‘taste of home’ from loved ones, and even from their home towns at Christmas. Given the monotony of the standard-issue rations that soldiers were expected to survive on in WW1, it is difficult to quantify the boost that these parcels gave to the soldiers’ morale.

These positive effects did not go unnoticed. In 1937, Hershey’s developed the famous ‘D Ration’ for the US Army, an energy-packed but mostly flavorless bar which was heat-resistant up to 120°F. The bars were almost universally unpopular amongst soldiers fighting in WW2, and were nicknamed ‘Hitler’s secret weapon’ for their unfortunate effect on the digestive system. US soldiers thus took to trading them with locals for more appetizing cigarettes and alcohol. For people around the world who had never tasted chocolate, however, the bars were a revelation, and this was instrumental in creating the global chocolate craze we have today.

20 Downright Bizarre Details About the History of Chocolate that We Love to Sink Our Teeth Into
Belgium is rightly famous for its delicious, seashell-shaped pralines. Pilot Guides

7. It’s no accident that Belgium is the home of chocolate

Belgium is the spiritual home of anyone with a sweet tooth. Belgian streets are so stuffed with chocolatiers and bakeries that they look like they’ve been built by the witch from Hansel and Gretel. Belgian chocolate, traditionally a sweet and rich variety, is enjoyed all over the world, and is a major part of the country’s economy. Understandably, the Belgians take chocolate very seriously. Since 1894, the specific composition of Belgian chocolate has been subject to legislation demanding a minimum level of pure cocoa. It takes years of work and intense study to become a Belgian master chocolatier.

But it is not a coincidence that Belgium is so renowned for its chocolate. Back in the 17th century, Belgium was occupied by the fathers of European chocolate, Spain. The Spanish brought with them their taste for chocolate, and gave the closely-guarded secret of how to make the drink to locals. Though the Spanish eventually left, the chocolate remained, and sweet-toothed Belgians invented many of today’s favorite varieties. The industry was helped in no small part by the cocoa plantations in the Belgian Congo, which ensured the chocolatiers had an economically viable and ready supply of the necessary raw materials.

20 Downright Bizarre Details About the History of Chocolate that We Love to Sink Our Teeth Into
The Chocolate Girl by Jean-Étienne Liotard, possibly Paris, c.1744-45. Wikimedia Commons

6. In 1657, the first chocolate houses opened in England

A few centuries ago, instead of heading to the nearest Starbucks you’d be meeting your friends at a chocolate house. Once the English worked out what the strange beans carried by the Spanish galleons they plundered were actually for, and developed a taste for the delicious drink, demand for chocolate became so great that people began making a living selling chocolate on the streets. Inevitably, this led to the establishment of permanent establishments, chocolate houses. The first chocolate house in the UK opened its doors to well-heeled customers in London in 1657, and others soon appeared around the country.

Unfortunately, these chocolate houses attracted a rowdy bunch. The novelty and expense of the drink – as well as its reputation for curing hangovers and being an aphrodisiac – made it appealing to the worst-behaved listless aristocrats in the country, who would drink chocolate in great quantities and behave in a generally rakish manner. The chocolate houses were notorious as a result, and the gambling room at White’s Chocolate House was simply known as Hell. Moralists such as the artist William Hogarth made seething criticisms and depictions of events at such places, and common consensus was that they were best avoided.

20 Downright Bizarre Details About the History of Chocolate that We Love to Sink Our Teeth Into
An advert for Ferrero’s ‘Supercrema’, the old name for Nutella spread, Italy, 1950s. Blogspot

5. Nutella was invented because of a shortage of a chocolate

Nutella is the undisputed king of chocolate spreads and enjoys a cult following around the world, somehow appealing to children and adults alike. In 2013 alone, 365 million tonnes were consumed worldwide. But despite its decadent taste, it was actually invented in a time of crippling austerity. Pietro Ferrero (1898-1949) was an Italian pastry maker from Piedmont, a region rich in hazelnuts. Chocolate shortages following WW2 meant that few people could afford it, and Ferrero didn’t think that was right. He began to experiment with making a sweet paste from crushed hazelnuts and a little cocoa, and voila!

Nutella was born. Originally, it was a solid block which had to be sliced, but a few years after the first lumps were made available the Supercrema variety familiar today was invented. The importance of this spreadable type of chocolate was that it encouraged people to buy chocolate as an everyday item, rather than reserving it for special occasions. After all, you could simply put it on bread if you wanted (and everyone seemed to). Emerging at a critical time when people needed cheering up and didn’t have much money, Nutella has gone from strength to strength ever since.

20 Downright Bizarre Details About the History of Chocolate that We Love to Sink Our Teeth Into
Pods growing on a cacao tree. BeaBeeInc

4. Chocolate comes from the cacao tree, which was a real pain to cultivate

We’ve only mentioned the cacao tree in passing, but there is a reason Quetzalcoatl had to teach people how to cultivate it. As for most things in life, patience is very much a virtue when it comes to the cacao. The cacao is an evergreen tree that grows to only 4-8 meters in height. Once planted, the cacao takes 5 years to produce its first pods. Though the tree can live for decades, it has a peak pod-producing time of only 10 years. And from their first flourishing on the branches, those pods take 5 months to ripen.

Cacao trees aren’t half fussy about where they will grow, either. They need plenty of shade, rainfall, humidity, and good soil drainage. Hence they are very vulnerable both to dry seasons and especially heavy rainfall, making them a very labour-intensive tree to grow. But despite all this, the Mesoamericans were not to be discouraged, and began cultivating the trees a very long time ago indeed. Recent research suggests that the first cacao tree was domesticated 3, 600 years ago. Their success in this domestication, as evidenced by archaeological finds of cocoa residue on pottery, is nothing short of remarkable.

20 Downright Bizarre Details About the History of Chocolate that We Love to Sink Our Teeth Into
Coenraad Johannes van Houten, the inventor of the chocolate press, Netherlands, 1910. Wikimedia Commons

3. Modern chocolate was invented in the 19th century

As mentioned above, all chocolate consumed took the form of a drink until the early 19th century. The key innovation that led to today’s chocolate bar can be attributed to Coenraad Johannes van Houten (1801-87), a Dutch chemist, whose father, Casparus, owned a chocolate factory. In 1828, father and son patented a hydraulic cocoa press that squashed half the cocoa butter from the beans. This all sounds rather dull, but the resultant ‘cake’ could be smashed into cocoa powder, which is used for making drinks and mixing with sugar to make today’s more familiar form of solid chocolate.

The bar itself, however, was not invented until 1847, when the British confectioner Joseph Fry (1777-1861) learned how to add the cocoa butter back into the mixture to make a mouldable substance that could be sold in bars. Other companies, such as the more familiar Cadburys, soon followed suit. Milk chocolate, the most popular form of modern chocolate, was invented in 1875 by the Swiss chocolatier Daniel Peter, who added powdered milk invented by his neighbour Henri Nestlé into the paste. The resultant product was so successful that the pair founded… you’ve guessed it, Nestlé, the world’s largest food company.

20 Downright Bizarre Details About the History of Chocolate that We Love to Sink Our Teeth Into
A Chocolatada (‘chocolate party’) depicted on tiles, Valencia, early 18th century. World Standards

2. When chocolate arrived in Spain in 1528, it was used as a medicine

When the drink that Hernán Cortés was served by Montezuma eventually found its way to Spain, it proved puzzling. Remember, this wasn’t the delicious, sweetened hot chocolate that we enjoy of a chilly winter’s evening today, but a bitter liquid flavored with chili peppers. The account of Jose de Acosta, a Spanish Jesuit missionary in Peru and Mexico in the 16th century, gives a sense of their befuddlement: ‘loathsome to such as are not acquainted with it, having a scum or froth that is very unpleasant [to] taste… [and] yet it is a drink very much esteemed among the Indians’.

However, the Spanish colonists swore by chocolate’s medicinal properties: ‘both men and women that are accustomed to the country are very greedy of this Chocolate… which they say is good for the stomach and against the catarrh’. Back in Spain itself, this is indeed how chocolate was first used, especially as a laxative. But tiring of the bitter taste, people began adding sugar and honey to the mixture to make it more palatable, and the resultant mixture was nothing short of a revolution. The sweetened remedy was so delicious that people soon forgot about chocolate’s supposed medicinal properties altogether.

20 Downright Bizarre Details About the History of Chocolate that We Love to Sink Our Teeth Into
An engraving of people captured by slave traders in Central Africa, probably England, 1866. Wikimedia Commons

1. The links between slavery and chocolate will turn your stomach

The huge demand for chocolate in Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries was met by the then-thriving slave trade. The cacao tree, as we have seen, was a difficult thing to cultivate, and to make the maximum profit from such a labour-intensive product, slavery was the natural answer. At first, the local population in Central and South America were forced to work on the cacao plantations, but when disease wiped most of them out, African slaves had to be imported to undertake the back-breaking labour. The chocolate industry was thus directly responsible for the enslavement of thousands of people.

But here’s something that will turn the chocolate you’re eating to ashes in your mouth: much of today’s chocolate is still the product of slavery and child labour. Across West Africa, where about two-thirds of the world’s cocoa is grown, children and adults are forced to work the plantations for little or no money, all to cater for the world’s sweet-tooth. In 2015, Tulane University researchers revealed that a shameful 2.3 million children were working on cocoa production in the Ivory Coast and Ghana alone, 90% of whom were slaves. The chocolate industry is yet to take any significant action.

Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“2013/14 Survey Research on Child Labor in West African Cocoa Growing Areas”, School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine Tulane University, July 30, 2015.

Chrystal, Paul, and Joe Dickinson. A History of Chocolate in York. Barnsley: Remember When, 2012.

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. London : Thames and Hudson, 1996.

Green, Matthew. “How the decadence and depravity of London’s 18th century elite was fuelled by hot chocolate.” The Daily Telegraph, March 11, 2017.

Grivetti, Louis, ed. Chocolate: History, Culture, and Heritage. New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, 2009.

Hourglass PJ. “Chocolate and Hysteria.” The Pharmaceutical Journal Blog.

O’Connor, Anahad. “The Claim: Chocolate Is an Aphrodisiac.” The New York Times, July 18, 2006.

Walvin, James. Slavery in Small Things: Slavery and Modern Cultural Habits. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2017.

Zarillo, Sonia, et al. “The Use and Domestication of Theobroma cacao During the Mid-Holocene in the Upper Amazon”. Nature Ecology & Evolution 2, no. 10 (October 2018).