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.
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.
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.
... and eventually as a sweet treat
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.
The French got to know chocolate in 1615: when Louis XIII married the Spanish Anna of Austria. They moved to France, introducing the chocolate drink to the royal court. Anna even brought her own maid Molina to France, a beautiful girl who prepared the queen’s cocoa drink.
The Netherlands became part of the Spanish imperium in the 14th century, which explains the early introduction of cocoa there in 1621. The West Indian Company even imported cocoa through the port of Amsterdam, set up small-scale production units for the processing of cocoa and sold its products to foreign traders.
Belgium was annexed with the Spanish imperium after the death of Charles the Bold in 1477. The first traces of cocoa were found in Ghent in 1635 in the Baudeloo abbey.
In 1641 the German scientist Johan Georg Volckammer tasted chocolate on his trip to Napoli. He was so overwhelmed by the charm of it that he imported some chocolate to Germany. It took him some time to convince the Germans, but after a while many of them fell for its taste. The Germans even introduced the habit of drinking a cup of hot chocolate before sleeping. Did this have something to do with the German belief in chocolate as the best stimulus for passion?
As for the English, chocolate was valued as “extravagant” when they first got to taste it in 1657. As in the rest of Europe, chocolate was a privilege at first, only consumed at the royal court and by the nobles but it soon developed into a popular foodstuff for the upper class.
And finally: France had its first real chocolatier in 1659. David Chaillou prepared and sold biscuits and cakes made with chocolate for those who could afford it. It is still too early for real pralines, as we know them.
In 1674 chocolate was served in pastry in the first coffee houses in the UK.
When he visited the Belgian capital Brussels in 1697 the Zurich mayor Heinrich Escher tasted chocolate on one of his tours around the city. He was filled with so much amazement and enthusiasm that he immediately took samples back with him to Switzerland. Escher probably never imagined for himself what the consequence for Switzerland would be – becoming one the world's greatest chocolate nations.
Religion & Politics
1662: The Italian cardinal Francesco Maria Brancaccio confirms after years of long discussions that it was permissible for Catholics to consume chocolate during the 40 days of Lent, but only as a drink and not in its solid shape, neither processed in cakes or as pastilles.
1671: The duke of Plessis-Pralin – one of the ambassadors serving Louis XIII – was competing with the Bordelais, who undermined the King’s authority. In one of his sly moods, he came upon the idea of inventing a candy that would distract the rebels of Bordelais. He proposed this idea to his chef Lassagne, who – by coincidence – had seen one of his sous-chefs enrobing an almond in some spoiled bits of sugar. The idea of the praline was born. It still would take a long time though before the real praline – covered with chocolate – was invented.A threat to cocoa
In the 17th century, the cocoa plantations became over-cultivated which exhausted the soil. On the other hand, the colonials had spread diseases and epidemics that struck the local population in a dramatic way. Hundreds of thousands of people died: local workers became scarce and the Spanish couldn’t find enough men to take care of the thousands of cocoa plantations. At that point, the success of cocoa threatened to destroy its own future.