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Montezuma gave us cocoa; Cadbury gave us chocolate

Posted in Discoveries, Historical articles, History, Industry, Plants on Monday, 30 April 2012

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This edited article about chocolate originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 697 published on 24 May 1975.

Emperor Montezuma, picture, image, illustration

Montezuma, the Aztec emperor, liked drinking cocoa

The Aztecs liked drinking cocoa almost as much as they enjoyed a good fight. Their last emperor, Montezuma, used to get through fifty golden cups every day, as Hernando Cortez and his band of Spanish adventurers noted, after they had invaded Mexico in 1519 and conquered the remarkable Aztecs.

It was certainly a better habit than tearing out human hearts as a sacrifice to the gods to ensure that the sun came up each day, another local custom.

Not that Cortez and his men discovered the humble cocoa bean, for, a quarter of a century earlier, Christopher Columbus had shipped a number of beans back to Europe. But the story of chocolate really begins with Cortez and his daring band of adventurers.

The Aztecs believed that their gods had provided them with cocoa trees, and they made chocolate from crushed cocoa beans, corn and water, and proceeded to spice it with pepper. This was too much for the Spaniards. But one of them had the bright idea of putting sugar into the brew, and it rapidly became so popular that women had steaming cups of it brought into church to sustain them during the sermon.

The beans travelled back to Europe first class in treasure ships, and for a century the Spaniards not only enjoyed the strange new chocolate drink, but kept the secret of how to make it to themselves.

The idea finally spread to Italy, France, Britain and elsewhere, but at first only the rich could afford the new taste sensation. For instance, in Britain in 1700 it cost 50-75p a pound, a colossal sum in those days.

The very first reference that we have to chocolate in Britain is an advertisement in the Publick Adviser of 16-22 June, 1657, when Oliver Cromwell and his Puritans were in power. They could not have been all that puritanical if they let this sort of luxury into the country:

. . . in Bishopsgate Street, in Queen’s Head Alley, at a Frenchman’s house, is an excellent West India drink called Chocolate to be sold, where you may have it ready at any time, and also unmade at reasonable rates.

Chocolate Houses soon became elegant spots, where fashionable folk gossiped and exchanged business news as the delicious drink went down. In France, Maria Theresa, the Spanish wife of Louis XIV, was so fond of her favourite beverage that a historian said of her that her only two loves were the king and chocolate, a frivolous piece of information, some readers may feel; but at least it shows that the drink was still going down the very finest throats.

By the 17th century, cocoa trees were being planted in other countries besides South and Central America. The West Indies was a centre of the booming industry until a savage hurricane swept across the islands and wrecked the entire cocoa crop. Spaniards took the cocoa tree to the island of Fernando Po off the West African coast soon after its discovery in Mexico; but it was not until 1879 that cocoa beans reached the African mainland, which is now their most important home.

That year, a blacksmith named Tette Quesi returned from Fernando Po to his home on the Gold Coast (now Ghana), bringing with him some cocoa beans. He planted them, and from this modest start came Ghana’s great cocoa industry, which now exports more than half the world’s supply. Other major cocoa-producing areas are Ghana’s coastal neighbours and Brazil. Minor areas include tropical America, Asia and the East Indies.

But what about eating-chocolate, which, after all, is what most of us like best? It took several centuries for anyone to think of eating the stuff: it was all the average person could do to get any to drink. In the 17th and 18th centuries, cocoa imports were heavily taxed in Britain and elsewhere, and smugglers did a roaring trade until as late as 1853, when the import duty on the precious beans was lowered and poorer people could enjoy the drink.

It seems that the first actual eating-chocolate sold in blocks was made by Francois-Cailler at Vevey, Switzerland, in 1819. Certainly, this was the first on a large scale, though clearly there had been some eaten before that in Italy, France and Switzerland. In Britain, an advertisement of 1826 proudly refers to “Fry’s Chocolate Lozenges” as being a “pleasant and nutritious substitute for food in travelling.”

Sounds familiar? Of course, for it is a long-winded way of saying what publicity men often claim for chocolate today. Not until 1853, did Fry’s start producing chocolate strictly for treat-eating, by which time John Cadbury had been promoting “French Eating Chocolate” for eleven years. But we do not know whether Cadbury’s made their own chocolate at that time, or had it imported.

John Cadbury, founder of the famous firm, had opened a grocer’s shop in Birmingham in 1824, and rapidly built up his own brands of drinking chocolates and cocoas. But who, one wonders, was the true pioneer, the man, or, more probably, child, who found a cake of drinking chocolate and decided it was scrumptious?

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