Chocolate cacao treeRaw chocolate is also known as chocolate cacao and comes from the cacao tree.   The trees grow in Mexico and central and south America and have been cultivated since around 1100 BC.  It was the Maya and Aztec civilizations who first started using the the seeds from the cacao tree and making them into drinks. Cacao trees grew in the jungle and the seeds of these trees would be harvested for special occasions when they would be made into a bitter drink.  They would add spices or chilli to these drinks to give them a flavor.  Don’t imagine the drink was like drinking chocolate of today though, it was bitter and watery not milky and sweet like the way we drink it now.  They used to call the drink ‘xocoati’ which meant bitter water.   It was centuries later after the fall of the Aztec Empire that the chocolate cocoa beans were brought over to Spain by Conquistador Hernan Cortes.

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How chocolate cacao was used

The seeds from the cacao tree are fermented to give them flavor. Then they are dried, cleaned and roasted.  When the shell is then removed you are left with chocolate cacao nibs, which are sometimes sold as they are. These have an intense chocolatey flavor but are bitter.  Normally the cacao nibs are ground down and then liquefied before adding to other ingredients. Usually they are made into cocoa solids and cocoa butter and these are blended together to make chocolate. Usually sugar is added and sometimes milk and then other ingredients if the chocolate bar has a sweet flavor.

However, in the early days of the chocolate cacao, it wasn’t blended with milk or sugar and was always in the form of a drink. It’s popularity spread through Europe and was an expensive product which was consumed by the rich upper classes.  It was a luxury that most people couldn’t afford.

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Making chocolate cacao a sweet treat

It was at the end of the 19th century, many, many years after the beans had first been used, that milk was added to chocolate and it was discovered that it could be eaten as well as used as a drink.  At first this was still only available to the rich, but in the 20th century it became cheaper and a product that everyone could afford.

How valuable is chocolate cacao

raw cacao chocolate podIn the past chocolate cacao was so rare that it was used as currency.  The Mayan Indians would clear some forest and grow their own trees and then use the beans to trade for other goods both between themselves and with merchants.  They would carry the chocolate cacao beans on their back of use a canoe to travel to trade with their beans.  It just shows that the beans were a really valuable commodity. They were given as gifts on important occasions and at religious ceremonies.   The Mayans traveled as far as the Aztec Empire to trade.  The Aztec’s loved the taste of the chocolate cacao beans and would particularly like them blended with chilli, vanilla and honey.  They couldn’t grow their own cacao trees as their land was too dry so relied on trades to get their ‘chocolate fix.

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