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

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
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).