Chocolate can be consumed in various different ways: as a drink, as a bar, as an ingredient in sweets and, of course, as a gelato flavouring. Chocolate comes from the cocoa plant, an ancient species whose properties were already known to pre-Columbian inhabitants who used to eat and drink Xocolatl!
History of Chocolate
The first people to farm the cacao tree were the Mayans around 1000 BC. The plant then began to spread throughout Latin America, from southern Mexico to Guatemala, down to Honduras.
In pre-Columbian civilizations, the fruits of the cacao tree were exchanged as a valuable bargaining chip – a slave could be bought for 10 cocoa beans. After the Mayans, cocoa continued to be grown by the Aztecs, who ascribed mystical and religious value to the plant. High priests would present cacao beans as an offering to the gods during sacred ceremonies. The Aztecs were among the first people to make cocoa into a drink: they first roasted the cocoa beans, then ground them up and mixed them with water, spicing them up with pepper or chili to make Xocolatl, the ancestor of modern drinking chocolate. With its bitter and particularly unpleasant taste, according to the stories of the conquistadors, Xocolatl was used to relieve pain and boost energy. The Aztecs used to eat chocolate in solid form, pounding the cocoa beans against a stone until they achieved a thick granular paste.
Cocoa arrived in Europe thanks to the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés, recognised by the Aztec emperor Montezuma as the reincarnation of the god Quetzalcoatl who, according to a prophecy, was set to arrive on Earth in the year 1519. Among the many valuable offerings which Cortés received was a whole cocoa plantation. Drinking chocolate as we know it today is a European invention: the Spanish replaced pepper and chilli with sugar and vanilla to make it sweeter to drink. Around the seventeenth century, chocolate had spread throughout Europe and production passed from monasteries and convents to factories. At the same time, Turin became the biggest chocolate-producing city in Italy: even today, the area is still home to nearly half of Italy’s total production. The industrialisation process also made it easier to process cocoa: cocoa beans no longer needed to be crushed by hand, and steam engines managed to process large quantities of material. By the end of the 18th century, chocolate had gone from being a delicacy for the élite to a product that (almost) everyone could afford.