How Europe went crazy for cocoa

Sacred to the Maya in the New World, cocoa took on a new life when it hit the shores of the Old World. Lauded by royalty, denounced by the church, and embraced in the kitchen, chocolate became the most fashionable drink in all of Europe.

By Fátima de la Fuente del Moral
Published 16 Nov 2018, 08:31 GMT
Chocolate on the menu in this 18th-century French painting of a family at breakfast by François ...
Chocolate on the menu in this 18th-century French painting of a family at breakfast by François Boucher.
Photograph by Scala, Florence

In May 1502, Christopher Columbus set out on his fourth voyage to the New World. From this trip, he brought back many things to Europe: gold, silver, and a plain-looking cargo of beans. The Spaniards weren’t impressed and largely overlooked them. At that time no one could have predicted just how much these unassuming beans would end up transforming Spanish and European cuisine.

Two short centuries later, the capital of the Spanish Empire was overrun by chocolate and consuming more than five tonnes every year. According to contemporary records, there was not a street in Madrid where chocolate could not be bought and drunk. How did the humble cacao seed of a South American tree become the latest craze in Europe?

Chocolate and Chili

The Maya were among the first to fall under chocolate’s spell. The Madrid Codex, preserved in the Museum of the Americas in Madrid, Spain, contains the first written records of its consumption. The codex confirms that the Aztec believed that cacao beans were divine and seen as no less than a physical manifestation of Quetzalcoatl, god of wisdom. (See also: Chocolate gets its sweet history rewritten.)

As Spanish rule extended through the New World, the importance of cacao to the peoples they colonised became impossible to ignore. Cacao was valued so highly by the Aztec that it formed part of their monetary system. In order to understand the commercial transactions of the Aztec world, the Spaniards even created tables to show the trading value of specific amounts of cacao beans.

'The secret' of preparing chocolate was handed down to the Aztec from the Maya, who revered it as a divine drink. Cacao beans were ground to powder, and spices and cornmeal added. This powder was mixed with cold water and shaken vigorously until foam appeared.
Photograph by Oronoz, Album

At first, the conquistadores kept their distance from chocolate. As the chronicler Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo complained, the lips appear stained with blood after drinking it. The Aztec often mixed it with chili, a flavour alien to the Spanish palate. “Chocolate seemed more like a drink for pigs than something for human consumption,” wrote Girolamo Benzoni in his history of the New World. (See also: Prehistoric Americans Traded Chocolate for Turquoise?)

But attitudes changed rapidly when Hernán Cortés returned to Spain from his bloody conquest of Mexico in 1521. He presented the Aztec drink made from cacao beans to King Charles V. Adjustments to the recipe were made, sugar was added, and chocolate soon became popular among the higher echelons of Spanish society. A new fad had been born.

Chocolate and Theology

In Spain, the laborious task of grinding cacao beans fell to the molendero. This itinerant figure would criss-cross the country with a curved grindstone strapped to his back. Kneeling in front of his grindstone, he used a mortar to crush the tough coating of the beans. Little by little, and through enormous physical effort, the crushed beans would cohere into a smooth wet substance known as cocoa paste. In one of his poems, the late 18th-century Valencian writer Marcos Antonio Orellana invokes a sense of reverence toward the production of chocolate that the Maya might identify with: “Oh, divine chocolate / kneeling they grind thee / with hands praying they stir thee / and with eyes raised to heaven they drink thee!"

Monasteries were among the major consumers of chocolate, buying the drink in large quantities. The Cistercian monastery of Piedra, in Aragon, is said to be the first place in Spain where chocolate was prepared, and became a firm favourite among the monks there—but not all religious orders approved. The Jesuits believed that it went against the precepts of mortification of the flesh and poverty.

The question as to whether such a rich beverage should be drunk during periods of fasting sparked a theological debate between defenders and detractors of the chocolate habit. The 17th-century theologian Cardinal Francesco Maria Brancaccio gave a definitive answer to the vexed question in his now famous decree: “Liquidum non frangit jejunum—Liquid does not break the fast.”

Chocolate Etiquette

Publicised as an exotic drink from the Indies, the consumption of chocolate spread across Spain throughout the 17th century. The habit became so widespread that aristocratic women took to drinking it to keep themselves awake through long church sermons—a practice that ended with it being banned from churches by the bishops.

Among the nobility of that period, no afternoon reception would have been complete without the ritual of serving a cup of hot chocolate, accompanied by fingers of sponge cake or cookies for dunking. In winter, the beverage was enjoyed at firesides among soft cushions and colourful tapestries. Chocolate drunk at a summer reception was often served with ice.

A copper chocolate pot sits surrounded by baked goods for dipping in this 18th-century still life by Luis Meléndez.
Photograph by Oronoz, Album

The 17th-century version of the drink was much thicker than the kind of hot chocolate mostly drunk now. Spillages could often stain clothes and upholstery. Pedro Álvarez de Toledo, viceroy of Peru and first Marquis of Mancera, came up with a solution to that problem in 1640. He suggested making a small tray with a central clamp to which the chocolate pot—the jícara—would be fixed, so as to prevent its being knocked over or leaving messy drips. In honour of its inventor, the tray was called a mancerina. Depending on the social standing of the host, mancerinas could be made of silver, porcelain, or pottery.

The Marquis of Mancera designed a tray—a mancerina— to avoid chocolate drips.
Photograph by Oronoz, Album

Fading Fad

The rest of Europe, and especially France, soon fell under the spell of the cacao bean, thanks in great part to Anne of Austria, the daughter of Philip III of Spain. When she married Louis XIII of France, she brought with her the royal Spanish custom of drinking chocolate at breakfast time. Later, the wife of Louis XIV, Marie-Thérèse—another chocolate-loving Spanish princess—consolidated the supremacy of chocolate in the French court.

When the Bourbon dynasty was installed in Spain, its members became chocolate connoisseurs too, especially Philip V and his son Charles III. In his zeal to develop Spain through trade and industry, Charles III saw the potential economic value of cacao beans and allowed a monopoly on their trade between Madrid and Venezuela.

As a result, chocolate soon began reaching the tables of Spain’s wider social classes. Grocery shops specialising in products from the Spanish colonies catered to newly acquired exotic tastes. The habit of drinking chocolate became attainable for many people.

From the beginning of the 19th century, however, new industrial methods allowed even higher consumption at a much lower cost. Soon chocolate was replacing tea and coffee as the drink of choice. In Europe, at least, cocoa had become an everyday commodity, a world away from the holiness and mystery of its South American origins.

Oddly enough, culinary uses for chocolate were slower to take hold. It was only in the 18th century that it began being used in desserts and cakes. In his 1747 book, The Art of Confectionary, Juan de la Mata included recipes for sweets made with chocolate, among which was a novelty. De la Mata called it “foam”—the prototype to chocolate mousse. Chocolate candy bars first began to appear in the 19th century, creating a solid way for the world to go crazy for chocolate.


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