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  • Carlos Ríos

The Rich History of Chocolate: From Mexico to Europe

Updated: Jul 1, 2023

The story of chocolate unravels a narrative as rich, dark, and complex as the delicacy itself. Its history began thousands of years ago in the rainforests of Central and South America, long before the Spanish conquistadors had made their mark on the continent. This post will guide you through the captivating journey of chocolate, starting from its roots in Mexico, with a special emphasis on the Aztec's xocolatl, to its voyage across the Atlantic to Europe.

Cacao pod before cutted
Cacao Pod


The Mesoamerican Beginnings


The Theobroma Cacao, which translates to 'food of the gods,' was a wild-growing tree in the tropical rainforests of Central and South America. The Olmecs, one of the earliest civilizations of Mesoamerica, and based in present-day southeast Mexico, are believed to be the first to have tapped into the potential of the cacao beans around 1500 BC. They harvested the cacao pods, fermented, roasted, and ground the beans into a paste to make a bitter, frothy beverage.

This tradition of cacao consumption was passed down to the Mayans and then to the Aztecs, who held the cacao tree in high esteem for its valuable beans. Cacao beans were of such high value that they were even used as a form of currency.



Xocolatl and the Aztec Empire


The Aztecs, unable to cultivate cacao in the arid highlands of Central Mexico, obtained it through trade and tribute from the Maya and other peoples. To the Aztecs, chocolate was more than just a beverage; it was an integral part of their cultural, spiritual, and economic life. They considered cacao to be a divine gift from Quetzalcoatl, the god of wisdom.


The Aztecs used to prepare a special drink called "xocolatl" (bitter water), a concoction made from ground cacao beans, water, and spices. This frothy beverage was bitter, often flavored with vanilla, chili peppers, and achiote, a distinctive spice that gave it a red hue. Xocolatl was a part of religious ceremonies, weddings, and even funerals. It symbolized luxury, power, and prestige, predominantly enjoyed by the nobility and warriors.



The Voyage of Chocolate to Europe


In 1519, when the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés arrived in Mexico, he was introduced to xocolatl by the Aztec Emperor Moctezuma II. Intrigued by the frothy drink and recognizing its potential, Cortés brought cacao back to Spain following the conquest of Mexico.


At first, the Spanish nobility found the drink too bitter for their palate. However, after sweetening it with cane sugar and adding vanilla and cinnamon for flavor, it quickly became a sought-after delicacy among the Spanish upper class. This marked the beginning of chocolate's evolution into the sweet treat we adore today.


To meet the escalating demand, Spain established cacao plantations in their colonies, and the secret of chocolate was jealously guarded for nearly a century. But as Spanish princesses married into other European royal families and brought the coveted beverage with them, the fame of chocolate spread throughout the continent.


By the 17th century, chocolate had become a trendy drink across European high society. Yet, it was not until the Industrial Revolution, with the invention of machines capable of mass-producing chocolate, that this once-exquisite treat became accessible to the masses.


Cortes meets Moctezuma in 1519
Cortes meets Moctezuma in 1519

A Delicious Journey


The journey of chocolate from the ceremonial xocolatl of the ancient Aztecs to the sophisticated palates of Europe is a story steeped in history, culture, and innovation. It's a testament to how a bitter ceremonial beverage has transformed into a beloved global indulgence. The next time you enjoy a piece of chocolate, remember the fascinating voyage that it took from the lush rainforests of Mexico to reach your taste buds!


Whether you're a chocolate enthusiast or a history buff, the story of chocolate is an enthralling tale of cultural exchange and adaptation that continues to be written with every chocolate bar unwrapped and every cocoa bean harvested.



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