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A Short History of Hot Chocolate

From Aztecs to Swiss Miss

By Cie McCulloughPublished about a year ago 6 min read

One of the best things about being out in the cold is coming inside to hot chocolate.

But what wonderful culture brought us this delicious beverage that warms us from our toes to our fingertips and has the ability to calm our souls and radiate that oh so slight feeling of euphoria? Was it Norse, travelers of the icy seas? The Laplanders, who outlast the midnight sun?

No, and no. It was the bloodthirsty rulers from the jungles of Mesoamerica, the Aztecs and Mayans.

Hot chocolate? In a jungle? Well, not exactly, but everything starts somewhere, and hot chocolate started out cold, with no milk, sugar, whipped cream, or mini marshmallows.

Originally chocolate wasn't even chocolate, not as we know it today. The seed, or bean, from which chocolate is derived comes from the cacao tree, or theobroma cacao. Theobroma is a scientific name meaning "food of the gods", which is what the ancient people of Mesoamerica thought of the cacao tree, but the word cacao itself comes from both the Mayan word kakaw and the Aztec word cacahuatl, both of which have the meaning "bitter water".

The first to harvest the trees were the Olmecs, most likely the oldest civilization in both American continents, way back over 3,000 years ago. Not only was cacao valued as a drink, but the beans were often used as a form of currency.

The original cacao drink wasn't even sweet but bitter and spicy. The Mayan word xocoatl, which became the Mexican native word chocolatl, means "foam water", and refers to the practice the Mayans had of pouring the liquid back and forth, sometimes from great heights, until the drink was very frothy. But there was no sugar in the Americas; chili pepper, cinnamon, vanilla and sometimes cornmeal were added to flavor the cacao drink.

Chocolate is introduced to Europe

Christopher Columbus was the first European to see the cacao fruit, described as "almond looking". He and his crew captured a canoe full of the fruit and brought back some beans to show Ferdinand and Isabella, who were greatly unimpressed.

When Cortez defeated the warriors of Montezuma II and the Aztec Empire, he demanded their valuables. Montezuma, believing Cortez to be a fellow descendant of the gods, brought forth gold goblets of chocolatl, carefully whipped by servants. Of course, Cortez could barely drink the bitter substance and Montezuma had to admit he had been defeated by a mere mortal. Cortez, for his part, was amazed at the sheer amount that his adversary consumed - on average 50 cups a day! So even if Cortez didn't like the drink, there must be something to this cacao stuff.

So back Cortez sailed to Spain with his galleons filled to the brim with cacao beans, all sorts of chocolate drink making equipment, and instructions on how to use it. It is presented to the Spanish King, Charles I, along with a breakthrough idea by Cortez - add some sugar to counteract the bitter taste. Taking out the chili pepper and cornmeal, but keeping the vanilla and cinnamon, the Spanish add allspice, nutmeg and cloves to the recipe and create a drink fit for nobility. Then some courtiers decided to see if it might be better heated, and indeed, they decided it was.

For a hundred years the Spaniards kept the secret of this drink, then known only as chocolate, to themselves. But slowly it got out all over Europe through unexpected sources: the friars and the doctors. Chocolate was thought to have wonderful health benefits, and was also a known aphrodisiac, since Cortez reported Montezuma always consumed at least one cup before entering his harem.

In 1631, Doctor Antonio Colmenero de Ledesma published A Curious Treatise of the Nature and Quality of Chocolate, and in this book not only extolled the many health benefits of chocolate, but also gave the world the first written chocolate recipe. The ingredients were::

"Take one hundred cocoa beans, two chillies, a handful of anise seed and two of vanilla (two pulverized Alexandria roses can be substituted), two drams of cinnamon, one dozen almonds and the same amount of hazelnuts, half a pound of white sugar and enough annatto to give some color. And there you have the king of chocolates."

At this point chocolate is the drink that most people crave. Art and literature in France is full of erotic imagery inspired by the aphrodisiac nature of chocolate. In London the finer Coffee Houses start serving chocolate hot, and some establishments open serving nothing but "this excellent West India drink."

Later in that century the president of England's Royal College of Physicians, one Mr Hans Sloane, visited Jamaica. He tried the chocolate drink and found it "nauseous". What in the world did his countrymen see in this drink? Perhaps if mixed with a little milk, to lessen the strength...and milk chocolate was born.

It seems all over Europe people are drinking chocolate and making improvements. In the Netherlands, in 1828, Coenraad Johannes van Houten came up with a process to separate cocoa butter from cocoa powder. The cocoa powder is much easier to stir with water and milk, and by mixing back in a small amount of cocoa butter, it is easier to press it into bars. Chocolate bars! Now there is a distinction between chocolate, candy and hot chocolate.

The cocoa powder that van Houten created is quite similar to the instant we use now, but in America we tend to confuse the terms "hot chocolate" and "hot cocoa" as being the same thing. Hot cocoa is made directly from cocoa powder, but hot chocolate has the cocoa butter added back in, along with the sugar. For the diet conscious, hot cocoa is lower in fat, but not lower in the health benefits of chocolate, like antioxidants

Hot Chocolate and Hot Cocoa today, all over the world

Today the difference of serving hot chocolate in different countries is as diverse as the countries themselves. The traditional North American drink is instant, made from cocoa powder, sugar, and dry milk. Remember, hot chocolate was brought to America by the Dutch, who invented cocoa powder. Add some mini marshmallows and whipped cream, and you have the makings of a wonderful afternoon.

Mexicans also like the instant packets, but traditional Mexican hot chocolate is made from hard semisweet chocolate and milk, with cinnamon and vanilla added. Many people like to mix this with sugar, salt and eggs or, additionally, add in honey, coffee, and dried red chili pepper. In the center of Mexico, in the state of Oaxaca, many locals drink tejate, similar to the cacao and cornmeal from pre-Hispanic times. As always, it is important to froth the milk or water.

Europeans tend to serve hot chocolate much thicker than Americans are used to. The Italians serve cioccolata densa or cioccolato caldo, and they eat it with a spoon. Most European hot chocolate is more like pudding, and, as in Mexico, is a drink that is served more for breakfast than dessert. A particular treat in Belgium is "warme chocolade" or "chocolat chaud". This isn't served as hot chocolate, but a cup of steamed milk with a side of chocolate chips, for dissolving as you please.

Yes, chocolate is good for you!

Incidentally, those doctors 500 years ago didn't have it too far off. Chocolate is rich in antioxidants. The cocoa bean itself has been shown to reduce indigestion, a claim which even the Mayans and Aztecs stated. When Princess Maria Theresa of Spain gave her fiancé Louis XIV of France, an engagement gift of chocolate, the French court was told chocolate was an excellent way "to fight against fits of anger and bad moods". Today we find that chocolate has quite a bit of phenylethylamine, a chemical that actually does improve your mood.

And that last benefit is probably the best reason of all to consume your daily dose of xocoatl.

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About the Creator

Cie McCullough

I write about history, travel, and whatever crosses my mind. I love to explore and learn, and love history as much as science. I take a different view of the world, and do my best to convey that view when I write.

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  • Felix Nicholsonabout a year ago

    I have read a good few stories about the history of chocolate but this one is particularly well researched and comprehensive. You can piece the information together from here and there but I had never seen it all together in such a way. It's also a pleasure to read, this quality of writing is getting rare. I think it's a very good place to start on the subject and should be reccommended reading for food history, gastronomy and pastry students

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