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It's National Chocolate Week

It's National Chocolate Week

From bean to bar – chocolate is one of life’s little pleasures, but how did it get from the trees into our shops?

The cacao tree’s tasty fruits were discovered over 2,000 years ago in Central America. The Mayans were the first to make a proper drink, mixing the seeds contained inside the pods with chilli peppers, cornmeal and other ingredients to make a bitter spicy beverage. They later took the seeds and started to harvest them as a crop. They were fermented, roasted and ground into a paste – the resulting drink was reserved mainly for people of importance.

By 1400, the Aztecs were taking the seeds of Theobroma cacoa from all over the region, and also made a bitter chocolate drink like the Mayans had before them. Chocolate was also important in royal and religious events, with high priests offering cacao seeds to the gods and serving chocolate drinks at special ceremonies. The drink was called ‘xocolatl’, meaning ‘warm liquid’.

Cocoa fruits (Photo: M. A. P. Accardo Filho/Wikipedia)Europe lived in ignorance of chocolate until the 1500s. Hernando Cortez, the great Spanish explorer, found Aztec tribes using cocoa beans and decided to bring some back to his homeland.

It may have been fit for Aztec Kings, but most Spaniards did not find it to their taste. Therefore, Cortez added cane sugar to the concoction – making it much more agreeable. Further addition of spices, such as cinnamon and vanilla, enhanced the flavour even more. Ultimately, someone decided the drink would taste even better if it was served hot – voila! Hot chocolate was born.

The Spaniards guarded their secret fiercely, and it wasn’t until about one hundred years later that chocolate spread to the rest of Europe. In fact, it was Spanish monks who let the cat out of the bag, as it was them who were given charge of processing the cocoa beans. The news of a delicious, health-giving drink spread like wildfire, and it soon reached the fashionable Parisian courts, from where it was a short hop over to the UK. In 1657, the first chocolate house opened in England.

The way chocolate was made had hardly changed for hundreds of years, but by the mid 1700s, the Industrial Revolution brought new materials and equipment to modernise procedures. The steam engine also provided the perfect cocoa grinding machine and soon handcrafted chocolate gave way to mass production. The price of chocolate also fell sharply at the time, allowing it to be enjoyed by all.

The first chocolate factory in the USA appeared in 1765 in New England, after which production worldwide proceeded at a fast pace. John Cadbury opened his first chocolate shop in 1824 and, once the cocoa press had been invented in 1828, the quality of finished chocolate started to increase rapidly. The machine managed to squeeze out the fatty cocoa butter as well as powder, making a smoother, creamier drinking chocolate (even if it was worse for your hips!).

Liquid chocolate, as it was for centuries (Photo: peter_fir0002/Wikipedia)The 1800s saw three revelations in the chocolate business. Firstly, George Cadbury was born in 1839, founder of Cadbury's cocoa and chocolate company, which would later go on to become the world’s largest producer of chocolate. Secondly, in 1847, chocolate went from a liquid to a solid with the first eating chocolate. The brains behind the idea was an English company, which had made a fondant chocolate - much smoother and less grainy than the drinking variety of the time. The third break-through was in 1875 when Daniel Peters, working in Vevey, Switzerland, found a way of adding milk to chocolate – starting a love affair with chocolate from that moment on.

In 1878 George Cadbury, with his brother Richard, opened a new factory six kilometres south of Birmingham, UK and called it Bournville. He was among the first to believe in social rights for workers, and installed canteens and sports grounds at the factory. He also set up committees so workers could come to him with ideas on how to improve the firm. Mr Cadbury actually helped improve the conditions of factory workers around the world when, in 1910, his and several other high-powered companies refused to buy cocoa from plantations where harsh working conditions were known to be implemented until things had improved. Before long, bans on slave labour in plantations came about and conditions improved markedly.

Cadbury’s made their first chocolate bar in 1897; it used fresh cream and was called Cadbury’s Dairy Milk – it soon became Britain’s best selling chocolate bar. The famous Milk Tray followed in 1905; fourteen years later Cadbury merged with Fry and Sons.

A rival company, Rowntree, was also making chocolate in England, started and headed by Henry Issac Rowntree in 1862. Rowntree’s Chocolate Crisp arrived in 1935, which was later renamed Kit Kat – currently the world's best selling chocolate bar. A year later, they brought out Quality Street – named after a play by Peter Pan creator, J. M. Barrie. Cadbury’s equivalent, Roses, appeared in 1938, and also quickly became a household name around the world.

During World War II, allied armies were given chocolate rations, such was the value put it’s role in giving nourishment and boosting morale.

Cadbury merged again with Schweppes in 1969, to create a huge global chocolate and drinks company. Nestlé acquired Rowntrees, who produced Smarties and Black Magic, in 1988 to produce another – both had factories all over the world.

With more and more chocolate bars and sweets appearing on our shelves, it is sobering to think that the dark chocolate itself has hardly changed in years. I wonder what the Mayans would think of Galaxy?

Chocco fact:

Britons are the biggest chocoholics in Europe, munching through an average 10kg of the stuff per year.

To read more during National Chocolate Week 2006 - see the official website at www.chocolate-week.co.uk

Top picture: peter_fir0002/Wikipedia

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25 Jul 2017
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