Exploring the rich history of the cocoa bean
The cocoa bean’s come a long way in it 1000-year history, but many of the finest traditional chocolate-makers employ the same traditional techniques and recipes. We’d like to explain precisely why theirs is the chocolate we prefer to sell.
Cocoa beans have been a prevalent part of Central American cultures for centuries. As far back as 900AD the Mayan civilization is recorded as worshiping the cocoa tree, using its beans as a form of currency, and making a ceremonial beverage from water, ground cocoa beans and chillies, known as xocolatl, which means ‘bitter water’ - and from which the modern word ‘chocolate’ is derived.
The Aztec king Montezuma considered the drink cocoa bean a sacred source of wisdom and power, not to mention an aphrodisiac, and allegedly drank up to fifty cups of cocoa a day.
Not long after the Spanish conquistador Herman Cortes arrived on South American shores in 1519, was mistaken for a returning Aztec god and presented with an entire cocoa plantation, the bean made its migration to Europe.
A sweet secret
Convinced, like the tribes of South America, of cocoa’s near mystical restorative powers, at first the Spanish kept cocoa a jealously guarded secret, while Spanish cooks experimented with warming the drink and sweetening it with sugar to create something resembling the hot chocolate enjoyed today.
As the beverage became more increasingly popular, the secret soon leaked, and in 1615 cocoa found its way into the court of Louis XIII, King of France.
Novel, exotic and luxurious, the French wealthy enough to enjoy it, embraced cocoa instantly, and by 1657 a Frenchman had opened the very first hot chocolate shop in London.
Proving equally popular across the Channel, “chocolate houses” soon established themselves across the capital, and beyond. Rich, but not just for the wealthy Until the mid-18th century, chocolate was enjoyed exclusively as a drink – one that had altered little from the ancient recipes of the Aztecs.
With the arrival of the Industrial evolution, all that was about to change. From this point onwards, a series of innovations would begin to transform chocolate into the modern confection we recognise now.
It began with a Frenchman called Doret developed a hydraulic machine to grind cocoa beans into paste, shortly followed by a countryman named Dubuisson creating a steam driven chocolate mill.
These innovations made it possible to mass-produce chocolate inexpensively and quickly. For the first time, chocolate was no longer a pleasure reserved for the elite, but available and affordable for the people of Europe.
Chocolate innovation ‘presses on’
In 1829, Coenraad Van Houten, a Dutch chemist, invented the cocoa press, which made it possible to separate the dry part of the cocoa bean to make cocoa powder, and the wet part of the bean, to make cocoa butter.
This may appear a modest innovation at first glance, yet without the cocoa press, we would not have chocolate in all the form we recognise today.
The crucial separation of cocoa butter and cocoa powder, allows chocolatiers to then recombine the two in different proportions and with other ingredients. Simply put, without the cocoa press, we would not have white chocolate, milk chocolate or cocoa powder for drinking and baking.
Neither would we have seen the world’s first bar of eating chocolate, developed by The Fry Company of Bristol in 184 - nearly a thousand years after the first recorded accounts of cocoa being consumed by humans.
At Maws Fine Foods, our reputation for excellence was earned early on through the meticulous selection chocolate manufactures whose products we choose to supply.
Many of these companies have played a part in shaping the history of chocolate over the past centuries, and many continue to mould the future of the world’s favourite confection with new innovations for creating chocolate products that set new standards for both quality and sustainability.
Find out more about them, and discover what we believe makes their products so special in Part 2 of The Maws Chocolate Guide