Aumentar tamanho da letra  Reverter ao tamanho original Diminuir tamanho da letra  português english

Simply divine!

Por: Maria Ramos

If you’re crazy about chocolate and always thought it could only be called divine, you’re not alone. Chocolate was considered sacred by ancient societies in Mexico and Central America.

Illustration: Barbara Mello

Illustration: Barbara Mello

Primitive peoples in these regions discovered that beans from the cacao plant could be crushed and made into a delicious drink, which they called tchocolatl. Well, at least they thought it was delicious—but when the Europeans got to America in the late fifteenth century, they didn’t like the drink at all…bitter, fatty, and spicy! Back then, chocolate was quite different from the product we know today: not only did it not contain any sugar; it had pepper and other strong spices in it.

But if the Europeans didn’t care for that tchocolatl stuff at first, it was a divine gift for the Aztecs, who had a highly well-organized civilization that lived in Mexico from the fourteenth century on. More precisely, it was a divine gift from Quetzalcoatl, the god of wisdom and knowledge.

Because the Aztecs believed this divinity had brought cocoa beans from heaven, they celebrated its harvest with cruel rituals of human sacrifice. And to top it all off—right like a scene out of some horror movie—they offered the victims glasses of chocolate!

A long time later, in the eighteenth century, the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus, inspired by these stories and by the very taste of chocolate, baptized the cacao tree Theobroma cacao, which is Greek for divine food. But the strange facts about chocolate don’t stop here.

It all began...

Nobody knows for sure who invented chocolate. We do know, however, that long before the Aztecs, the Mayan civilization of the Classic Period (250-900 AD) were familiar with it. The Mayan Empire occupied the lands now belonging to Guatemala, eastern Honduras, Belize, and southern Mexico. Their agriculture-based society was highly developed and employed advanced irrigation techniques.

The Mayans planted cacao, harvested the plant, roasted its beans, and made them into a paste that was then mixed with water, pepper, grains, and other ingredients. The result was a cold, foamy beverage that was especially enjoyed by royalty—although many common folk drank it as well, at least once in a while.

Given the social and religious importance of chocolate, cocoa beans were considered very valuable—so valuable that they in fact were the Mayans’ form of money. A rabbit, for instance, could be bought for a few beans. When the Aztec Empire controlled a large part of Central America around 1400, their subjects often had to pay taxes in cacao beans.

Land ahoy!

In 1519, a Spanish navigator named Hernán Cortez reached the shores of America. To his surprise, Montezuma, Emperor of the Aztecs, received him cordially. This was because the Aztec calendar had predicted that the god Quetzalcoatl would return that very year. You’ve probably already figured out what happened: Montezuma thought Cortez was the reincarnation of Quetzalcoatl. After all, the emperor was a huge fan of tchocolatl—the story goes that he drank up to 50 bottles of it every day!

Illustration: Barbara Mello

Illustration: Barbara Mello

Montezuma was quick to give Cortez some glasses of tchocolatl and a cacao plantation. And although the Spanish explorer didn’t think much of the drink, he soon realized the beans were worth gold. Literally! While cocoa beans were a kind of local currency for the Aztecs, they didn’t think gold amounted to much.

But Cortez wasn’t satisfied with his profitable commercial trade, and one year later he betrayed the Aztec people who had welcomed him with open arms. With a little help from a smallpox epidemic—a disease Cortez had carried over to America with his troops—the conquistador defeated the Aztec armies and killed both Emperor Montezuma and his successor.

When Cortez went back to Europe in 1528, he took along some cocoa beans and gave Spain’s King Carlos V some chocolate. With their eyes on the trade benefits promised by this exotic beverage, the Spanish set up plantations on the tropical islands they had conquered, like Trinidad and Haiti in Central America and the island of Fernando Po (now Bioko) in the western African republic of Equatorial Guinea. In fact, over half of the world’s cacao is now produced in African countries.

The monks’ secret

In Europe, the chocolate habit caught on among the royal family and nobles of the Spanish court. They improved its flavor by adding fewer of the spices enjoyed by the Aztecs and using honey as a sweetener. King Carlos V had the habit of drinking his chocolate with sugar in it.

To make sure the recipe was theirs alone, the Spanish entrusted the secret only to monks. Monastery kitchens thus became laboratories for experiments in how to perfect chocolate and invent new recipes. For nearly a century, Spain was the only country to produce chocolate, which became a luxury item. While the nobility enjoyed it in their salons, the clergy were authorized to drink it even during times of fasting.

In the mid-seventeenth century, however, the word on chocolate started leaking out. The monks allowed foreign visitors to taste the beverage, and sailors captured Spanish ships loaded with cocoa beans. Cacao plantations spread quickly across Europe.

But it was only in the nineteenth century that chocolate really caught on. In 1825, the inventor Coenrad Van Houten created a press that separated cocoa liquor from cocoa butter. Cocoa liquor was used to make a higher grade of chocolate powder, and the butter—guess what—was used to make the first bar of chocolate!

See also:

The chemistry of love

Chocolate: fact and fiction

Witch's broom

The Field Museum

versión para imprimir: versión para imprimir