These days, chocolate is perhaps the world's most popular treat. Nearly every sweet comes in a chocolate flavor, and chocolate is a common ingredient used in both baking and cooking. But where does it come from, and how did it become such a staple?
Chocolate can be traced back as far as 1900 B.C., when various Mesoamerican peoples flavored drinks with fermented, roasted, and ground cacao beans. The difference between their chocolate and modern-day chocolate, though, is that their chocolate drinks were bitter; it was only when Spanish conquistadors came over to the new world that chocolate was sweetened with cane sugar and cinnamon.
The Olmecs, Mayans, and Aztecs believed that chocolate had spiritual and mystical powers, and thus chocolate was seen as a drink fit only for rulers, priests, nobles, and other higher-ups in society. The Mayans even worshipped a god of cacao. Cacao grew best in the area that the Mayans dominated, so when the Aztecs came to prominence in central Mexico, they would trade with the Mayans for cacao beans. Cacao was so sacred and special that it was even used as currency.
The Spanish conquistadors brought chocolate back to Spain with them, where it remained a drink reserved for nobles. It remained a Spanish secret until the daughter of Spanish King Philip III wed French King Louis XIII and brought chocolate with her to France. It quickly spread throughout other European nobility, and became so popular that European nations began to establish plantation colonies to harvest cacao.
Chocolate remained exclusive to aristocracy until Coenraad Johannes van Houten, a Dutch chemist, invented the cocoa press in 1828. The cocoa press worked by squeezing cocoa butter from roasted cacao beans. One could then pulverize the results of this pressing and mix the resulting powder with other ingredients. Solid, edible chocolate was now possible and much cheaper to produce, so this invention made chocolate affordable for the average person.
The British company J.S. Fry & Sons created the first chocolate bar in 1848. The late 1800s welcomed a boom in chocolate-making that has lasted to the present day, pioneered by big-name companies such as Cadbury, Mars, and Hershey. Today, the average American eats nearly twelve pounds of chocolate every year.