1502 was the first date of importance for Europe in getting acquainted with cocoa and chocolate. It was the adventurous time of the Spanish conquistadores with Christopher Columbus the first to set sail to the new world. When he reached the island of Guanaja – close to Honduras – the local people went part of the way by proa to meet him, their boats loaded with cocoa beans.
As they offered their precious gift to Columbus, some of the beans fell into the water. The Mexicans dived into to the water to save the beans as if they were the most precious items in the world. This amazed the Spanish. However, they did not really value “these strange almonds” and regarded them as a worthless local oddity at first.
In 1519 – the same year in which the Aztecs predicted that their feathered god Quetzalcoatl would return – Cortés set foot ashore in Mexico, on the very spot where Quetzalcoatl had escaped from to sail out to sea. No wonder that the Aztec emperor Montezuma mistakenly took Cortés – dressed with gold and colored feathers – for the returned Quetzalcoatl. They offered him cocoa, which interested Cortés. He had thought to find gold, but found instead this strange fruit with an apparently equal value, since he soon discovered that the Aztecs used it as a currency.
Cortés conquered the land and soon started cocoa plantations all over the area since he was convinced that it would bring him the same wealth as the gold he was hoping for. The Spanish conquistadors also used the cocoa beans as a local currency: they bought slaves, food and drinks and they also discovered how to make a nutritious, divinely tasting drink with it: xocoatl. Yes, chocolate. For their chocolate drink, the Aztecs opened the cocoa pods first, took out the 20 to 30 beans and dried the cocoa beans for a few days in the sun. Then they roasted the beans over the glowing heat of an open fire, which seemed to develop an overwhelming, sweet smell. They then ground the beans using a heavy roller and a curved kind of stone, a “metate”, added spices, herbs and red colored pepper to obtain a red paste. They dissolved this paste in water and poured it over from one recipient into another until it foamed. This fat and smooth foam made the drink delicious according to the Aztecs.
The Spanish originally were merely interested in the economic value of cocoa. They even judged the chocolate drink as horrible, and the rites and habits as heretic. But after some decades the Aztecs convinced the Spanish of the great nutritional value and the medicinal powers of cocoa, cocoa butter and the chocolate drink.
1528: Cortés imported the first cocoa beans into Spain while the Spanish maintained and stimulated cocoa cultivation in a restricted area in Latin America. They dominated and even monopolized the cocoa market and tried to keep the secret of this new gold to themselves. Chocolate arrives on the European continent... as a medicine. When chocolate arrived on the European continent, it was first regarded as a medicine, rather than as a delicious foodstuff. This was related to the Aztec belief that chocolate strengthened the body and was sensually stimulating. The first official statement was made by Bonavontura Di Aragon, brother of Cardinal Richelieu, in 1653: he described the use of chocolate as stimulating the healthy functioning of the spleen and other digestive functions.
Another example of this medicinal classification of chocolate is found in the first publication of the recipe for chocolate made by the Spanish doctor Antonio Colmenero de Ledesma in 1631. This was based on the ancient Aztec recipe, but the bitter flavor was enhanced by adding flowers and herbs like anis, vanilla, Roses of Alexandria, cinnamon, almonds, hazelnuts… The exact spices added depended on the physical ailments one suffered. Pharmacists and doctors often added their “functional and proven” medicines to the chocolate recipe in the 17th century. The taste of chocolate made the often bitter and bad taste of many medicines more acceptable.
In the 17th and 18th century, chocolate was regularly prescribed or mixed into medication for all sorts of ailments and diseases: the Dutch doctor Bontecoe saw it as highly effective against colds and coughing. According to the French Lémery it promoted digestion, fertility and human resistance to colds and flu. Chocolate was even considered as “brain power”, to reinforce the mental performance of people, or even for people suffering from depression. This was confirmed by doctors all over Europe: Bontecoe, Brillat-Savarin, Lémery and many others.
Because the medical properties of the Aztec-inspired chocolate drink recipe were so widely accepted, chocolate became the subject of abuse by charlatans who attributed advantages to it without any proof. Chocolate also became the subject of forgery and fraud, using waste products like the cheap cocoa shells instead of the precious kernels of the cocoa bean.
Benzoni, an explorer working for the Spanish army, describes in his traveling notes in 1565 for the first time how the cocoa drink is prepared. The Spanish keep this secret from the rest of the world, in the hope they can keep their monopoly in the cocoa trade. However, we owe the recipe for sweet chocolate to the nuns residing in Oaxaca (Mexico) - they popularized the chocolate drink among the colonials by adding honey, cinnamon and cane sugar. It was Spanish monks who introduced the first sweet delicacy to Spain around 1590. They sweetened the chocolate drink with honey and vanilla. The sweet sensation they developed laid the basis for our chocolate recipe today. It would conquer the world at a stroke.
In 1606 the Italian trader Carletti revealed the secrets of cocoa and the preparation of the chocolate drink to his fellow Italians. Carletti had enjoyed cocoa and chocolate in the West Indies and in Spain. It was a sensation he wanted to share with fellow Italians… with quite some effect. In Italy this lead to a real chocolate-mania, with cioccolatieri opening up in all major cities with Perugia as the heart of the Italian chocolate world. In Venice the first chocolate shops appeared. From Italy, chocolate was introduced to Germany, Austria and Switzerland.