The origins of Cacao, aka the Food of the Gods

Cocoa beans from the cacao tree have had a long and remarkable history, being used for everything from money to medicine and religious rituals, eventually becoming the basis of one of the world’s favorite sweet treats. Believed by the Maya and Aztecs of Mexico and Central America to be a gift of the gods, chocolate in those civilizations was only for the elite and for special occasions, served after feasts and drunk from gourd cups. In fact, it was thought to be an ill omen if an ordinary person drank it. For some rituals, it was mixed with blood, which was also seen as sacred. The name chocolate comes from the Aztec word xocolatl, which means ‘bitter water’. Carl Linnaeus, the 18th century Swedish naturalist, echoed early beliefs when he named the cacao tree Theobroma cacao- theobroma is Latin for ‘food of the gods’.

The right conditions:

Cacao trees, originally from tropical Mexico, Central America, and northern South America, grow in damp conditions, where they can be pollinated by midges and shaded by taller tropical trees. The trees shed all their leaves and die if the temperature falls below 60F (15.5C). Cacao seeds grow well when planted in ideal conditions and the trees will fruit by their third or fourth year. The cacao pods grow directly from the trunk and branches in an unusual way known as cauliflory. This was outside the knowledge of early botanical illustrators so it was often drawn incorrectly in the style of more familiar fruit trees with pods shown hanging from the ends of branches. Three main varieties of cacao tree are cultivated today. Although they can grow to about 60ft (18m) in height, they are usually restricted to 20ft (6m) or so in plantations for ease of picking, and the pods are harvested twice a year. The Criollo variety produces the finest beans and may even be the same ones that were harvested by the Maya and the Aztecs. Although the flavor is considered to be outstanding, they are susceptible to many diseases, are difficult to grow and produce fewer beans per pod than some varieties. The more reliable Forastero is the major commercial variety, accounting for 80 percent of world production.  The Trinitario is a natural hybrid that came about after a storm on Trinidad was assumed to have wiped out all the Criollo trees there. Forastero trees were planted but natural hybrids occurred combining the best features of both varieties. The tree cannot disperser its own seeds, but needs intervention by humans or another agent to do this.

Served Old Style

Archaeologists have found traces of cacao in drinking vessels dating back more than a thousand years in Honduras. However, it is impossible to say whether these are the remains of bitter cocoa beans or of the sweet pulp that surrounds them in the pod. The latter would have been fermented and made into an alcoholic drink but the beans needed to go through several processes to become palatable. They were fermented for several days during which the pulp around them became liquid and drained off. After that they were dried for a week or two and then roasted for one to two hours. The final process was winnowing to remove the papery shell before grinding. The chocolate the Mayas and the Aztecs drank was very different from the dining chocolate consumed around the world today – it was often served cold and sometimes eaten as gruel or porridge and mixed with chili, honey, vanilla and various flowers. it is thought to have been served hot by the Maya and cool by the Aztecs but was always poured from one vessel to another to produce a frothy head. The dissemination fo chocolate to the wider world began with the Spanish conquest of the Americas. On his 4th and last trip in 1502, he explorer Christopher Columbus chanced to meet with a large Mayan trading canoe from the Yucatan Peninsula. He captured it and on inspecting the cargo found only garments, foodstuffs, and cacao beans, which he didn’t recognize. He described them as almonds which in New Spain (Mexico)were used for money. Columbus, who was looking for gold was not impressed. It is unclear when chocolate first reached Spain – one story is that it happened in 1544, when Dominican friars who had spent time in Guatemala brought a delegation of Mayan nobles to meet Prince Philip II of Spain. They presented him with many gifts and with vessels of beaten chocolate. This may well have been the first time chocolate was seen in Europe but there is no record of the reaction to it. It was not until 1585 that a whole shipment of beans finally reached Seville. The drink was well received by the wealthy in Spain for whom it was prepared very differently from the traditional way. They wanted no strong spices like chilis, preferring gentler additions like can sugar, cinnamon and honey.