The cocoa plant originated in South America. It was first cultivated and consumed by the Mayo-Chinchipe population around 3300 BC in the part of the Amazon region that is modern-day Ecuador. At the time, cocoa was not used for its beans, but instead for the sweet mucilaginous pulp that covers them.
The use of cocoa beans was initiated by the Olmec population living in the Gulf of Mexico 3,000 ago. This population used the beans to make a beverage that was dense and energizing: the “ancestor” of hot chocolate.
The same beverage could be found later among the Mayans, who toasted and ground the beans before mixing them with water. The liquid was bitter, and often mixed with flowers and local spices, like vanilla, chile pepper and annatto. The importance of cocoa became so high that the beans were used as currency and the beverage was used to symbolize human blood in religious rites (due to its red color when seasoned with annatto). The consumption of cocoa was restricted to important castes: kings, nobles, warriors and ministers during religious rites. The Aztec population adopted the same preparation techniques used by the Mayans.
The first Europeans who tasted the chocolate beverage were the Spanish Conquistadores of Hernán Cortés when they arrived on the Yucatan Peninsula. Initially the chocolate beverage was not appreciated, probably because it was bitter and unusual, but once it was sweetened with sugar, it became coveted. Chocolate quickly became a very fashionable drink in the Spanish colonies and was subsequently introduced in Spain after 1500. It was used as a medicine for various disorders and illnesses, and then became a delicacy with much-appreciated euphoric properties at the royal court. In 1615 when the Spanish Princess Anna married the King of France, Luis XIII, chocolate was taken to France and from there it traveled all over the European continent.
For many centuries chocolate was consumed only in its liquid form. Fry & Sons in England produced the first solid chocolate bar in 1847 by mixing cocoa with sugar and cocoa butter, using the hydraulic press, invented by Conrad Van Houten in 1828, to separate cocoa butter from cocoa solids. In Switzerland in 1867, Daniel Peter and Henri Nestlé created the first milk chocolate. In the early 1900s, modern chocolate was born after Rodolphe Lindt invented the conching process and after the introduction of roll-refining, which was used to produce chocolate without granulation.
Chocolate was no longer simply a medicine or a symbolic potion of early civilizations, but a sweet delicacy to be consumed around the globe.