It's a Valentine's Day tradition and a treat every day of the year, but where does chocolate come from? How long has it been around? Who thought to put it in bar form, and is it too late to award him the Nobel Prize?
Well, chocolate originated in the Americas, and according to Wikipedia, there's evidence of chocolate consumption in Mesoamerican cultures as early as 1900 BCE. Mayans, Aztecs and other Mesoamerican cultures cultivated the cacao tree, from which chocolate is derived, and even used cacao beans as currency. But Mesoamerican peoples didn't eat chocolate as a dessert; they mixed it with water to make a drink -- and a rather bitter drink, at that. In fact, the word chocolate comes from the Nahuatl word xocolātl, which means "bitter water."
Chocolate was introduced to Europe in 1528, when conquistador Hernan Cortèz presented cacao beans to King Charles V of Spain, along with instructions on how to prepare the Aztec chocolate drink. Cortèz was also responsible for giving chocolate its sweetness; it was his idea to mix sugar into the drink.
However, the new drink didn't make it out of Spain for nearly a century. Although it quickly became all the rage among the who's-who of Spain, chocolate was reserved for the nobility. And despite the fact that Spain actually set up cacao-producing plantations in the New World to satisfy demand for the drink, chocolate was virtually a state secret until 1615, when Ann, daughter of Spain's King Phillip III, introduced it to her husband, French King Louis XVIII. It didn't take long for chocolate mania to sweep across France -- the wealthy part of France, anyway -- and by 1657 it had hopped the Channel; in that year, London's first chocolate house opened.
London chocolate houses were the trendy spots of the mid-17th Century, where the 1600s equivalent of the Jet Set ("Carriage Set?" "Slightly-Less-Likely-to-Die-of-Cholera Set?") came to see and be seen. In 1674, a particularly daring London chocolate shop did the unthinkable -- it served chocolate not only as a drink, but in cake form. But these were the heady, freewheeling days of the Restoration, and English chocolate lovers applauded the daring move.
Throughout this tme, chocolate remained a luxury affordable only by the wealthy. It wasn't until 1819, when cacao production increased dramatically, that chocolate became affordable to workaday folks. Once introduced to chocolate, however, working stiffs became as addicted as the aristocracy.
In 1830 came perhaps chocolate's biggest milestone: British chocolatier J.S. Fry & Sons developed solid chocolate, inventing the candy bar and paving the way for truffles, bonbons, and the ever-popular "Valentine's Day assorted chocolates, at least 50 percent of which will have a filling you dislike."
And the rest, as they say, is history. Sweet, fattening history.
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