The word cacao is believed to have originated from the Mayan word Ka'kau', and chocolate from the word Chocol’ha, and the verb chokola'j, "to drink chocolate together”. The Mayans believed that the ka'kau' was discovered by the gods in a mountain that also contained other delectable foods. In Mayan mythology Hunahpú gave cacao to the Maya after humans were created from maize by the divine grandmother goddess Ixmucané.
The earliest known archaeological evidence of cacao use dates back to the Olmecs in 2,000 BC although human use of the cacao fruit and its seeds is thought to be anywhere from 5,000 - 15,000 years old. The Mayans inherited their basic cacao knowledge from the Olmec peoples and made it a central part of their civilisation. The last three rulers of the Mayan city of Tikal, in present day Guatemala, were called 'Lord Cacao' and a cacao tree is found carved into the temple walls at Chichen Itza in the Yucatan.
The Mayans used cacao shamanistically and ritualistically. In baptism rituals, the cacao was pounded and added to water with flowers and the priest anointed the children on their foreheads, faces, and in the spaces between the fingers and toes. At weddings the raw cacao beans were ground on a stone metate and mixed with hot water, chili peppers and cornmeal. This bitter spicy hot chocolate was then transferred repeatedly between pots until the top was covered with a thick froth. It was then shared amongst the guests in special clay vessels. The froth was considered to be food for the soul and the drink food for the body. It was also used in shamanic ceremonies as a love offering to honour the gods. The Maya had a yearly festival to honour the cacao god Ek Chuah, where the priest would offer a cacao drink covered in his blood. Their other cacao gods were called Chac, Hobnil and a cacao goddess called Ixcacao.
The Aztecs who rose after the collapse of the Mayan civilisation, adapted cacao into their civilisation. They believed that the god Quetzacoatl, the plumed serpent, first brought cacao beans from the garden of life to earth. They associated cacao with Xochipilli, the god of song, poetry and springtime and his counterpart Xochiquetzal, the goddess of flowers.
The consumption of cacao became ritualistic and chocolate became a popular drink amongst the upper classes. Unlike the Maya, the Aztecs drank their chocolate cold, and mixed it with chili peppers, achiote (annato seeds), vanilla and corn. However there were many different recipe variations and additives such as passion flowers and pimiento. The achiote is said to represent the blood of the ancestors. It was drank after feasts in a special cup called a Xicalli, made out of a calabash gourd and mixed with a wooden whisk called a molinillo made out of the tepihilote palm. It was also taken as an aphrodisiac and for medicinal purposes. It was considered to have healing and preventative qualities and was given to Aztec soldiers to fortify and sustain them in battle. It was stated that Montezuma, the emperor of Tenochtitlan, now Mexico City, prior to visiting his grand harem, would consume up to 50 goblets of a hot chocolate drink to ensure a suitable visit to each member of the group. The raw cacao beans were also used as money and Montezuma had his treasure vaults filled with cacao beans instead of gold.
In the 1500s, European explorers started encountering cacao as they made contact with indigenous peoples. Columbus was the first European to learn of cacao when he captured a large trading canoe that was carrying it as cargo. He sent samples back to King Ferdinand but cacao did not become popular in Europe at this time as Columbus was only aware of cacao as a currency, not for its food or medicinal value.
In 1519 the Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortez recorded its use in the court of the Aztec Emperor Montezuma at Tenochtitlan, modern day Mexico City. One of his diary entries describes it as, “The divine drink that builds up resistance and fights fatigue. A cup of this precious drink permits a man to walk for a whole day without food.”
Journey to Europe
In 1544, Dominican friars took Mayan nobles to visit Prince Philip of Spain and brought gifts of cacao, mixed and ready to drink. Spain and Portugal did not export it to the rest of Europe for almost a century. It slowly gained popularity as a medicine and aphrodisiac before regular shipments to Europe started. The Europeans added cane-sugar, honey, milk and allspice and it turned into a popular delicacy amongst the wealthy, considered to be exotic and expensive. The hot chocolate was drunk out of specially designed porcelain or silver chocolate pots or chocolatieres and each European country had its own style. The first Chocolate House opened in London in 1657, and English café society believed it to be a cure-all medicine, even treating tuberculosis.
In 1828 Van Houten invented a de-fatting process that created cocoa powder. This separated cacao’s natural fat or cocoa butter and left a powder that could be mixed into a drinkable solution. Known as "Dutch cocoa", this hydraulic machine-pressed chocolate was instrumental in the transformation of chocolate to its solid form when in 1847 Joseph Fry learned to make chocolate moldable by adding back melted cacao butter. In 1867 Henri Nestle discovered a process to powder milk by evaporation. The Swiss chocolate maker Daniel Peter then combined the powdered milk and sugar to create the first chocolate bar in 1879. Although considered a monumental moment in food history, it was the addition of powdered milk that blocked the healing anti-oxidant properties of cacao. Raw cacao has 10% antioxidant concentration, compared to cocoa powder and most processed chocolates, with an average of only 0.5% antioxidants.
History of the Plant
In 1753 Carl von Linnaeus, a Swedish scientist, thought that chocolate was so important that he named the genus and species of the chocolate tree himself. He named it 'Theobroma Cacao', meaning, 'cacao the food of the gods', which is what the indigenous people called it.
The cultivated tree grows anywhere between three to ten metres in height. The tree begins branching fairly close to the earth and from its branches spring the dark green leaves, about 10 - 25 cm in length and 5 - 8 cm wide. The small cacao tree flowers produce fruit all year-round. They are five-petalled, pale, lightly scented and grow straight out of the trunk. They are pollinated by midges and then grow into a pod-fruit, which starts off green, then develops into beautiful red, yellow, blue and purple colours, depending on the variety. It takes five to six months for each fruit pod to ripen and they grow 18 - 20 cm in length. Each fruit contains anywhere from 20 to 50 beans, surrounded by a sweet white pulp. A mature tree will produce about 50 fruits, harvested twice a year.
Theobroma Cacao is indigenous to Central and South America, originating in the Orinoco river basin in Venezuela and has now spread to most tropical climates within 20 degrees of the equator . Bioko, a small island near the equator off the coast of West Africa, was the first site of cacao cultivation outside of the Americas in 1590 and became the launch point of cacao into Africa.
There are 3 major species variations of Theobroma Cacao cultivated around the world. Criollo, originates from Central America and was the first variety to be cultivated. It has an exquisite rich, intense flavour with a full aroma and is used in all MOCOCU’s chocolates. Criollo represents about 5% of the world crop and is grown mainly in Peru, Venezuela, Ecuador, Columbia and Indonesia. The Forastero variety was domesticated later than Criollo and is a vigorous, more robust plant that matures quickly and produces a rough chocolate. It accounts for 80% of the world’s production and is grown mainly in Africa and Asia. Trinitario, is a hybrid of Criollo and Forastero and dates back to the late eighteenth century. It possesses the delicate flavour and aromatic properties of the Criollo and the hardiness of the Forastero plant. Today it grows in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, South America and the West Indies and accounts for 10 -15% of the worlds cacao production. It has a very high fat content of 56-58%.