Friday, October 28, 2011

Chocolate: A History of Innovation

Stop! Before you take your next bite of chocolate, think about this. It's a complete accident of history that we are able to eat chocolate today.

Deep in the Jungle
The origins of this delicious treat are hidden deep in the South American jungle - literally. That's where cocoa trees were growing back in the times of the Mayans. Famous for many things, including a developed and highly ordered civilization and a fantastic way of calculating and measuring time, the Mayans also indirectly brought us chocolate. They took the beans, which were growing wild and made them into a drink called xocoatl. The name meant bitter water, but bitter or not, the drink was prized as a tonic. Meanwhile, the beans were used as currency and traded to many of the Amerindian groups ot the time, including the Aztecs, who also loved the drink.

Spanish Travels
The Aztecs introduced the beans and the drink to the Spanish, who lost no time in taking it to Europe with them. It's hard to imagine these days, but back in those times you had to be of noble birth or very rich to be able to enjoy a chocolate drink - no commoners allowed. That's because it had been imported and was expensive. Even though it tasted nothing like the chocolate we have today - it was still very bitter - people loved it. Soon, though, another innovation made chocolate closer to what we know today: the addition of milk. At this time, chocolate was still mainly a drink and when Sir Hans Sloane experimented with milk, it suddenly became truly drinkable.

Photo Credit
From Drinking to Eating
But there was one more innovation that had to happen to bring chocolate closer to what we know today. We now take it for granted that chocolate is available in edible form, but the chocolate bar is a relatively recent invention. Fry and Son of Bristol, famous in the UK for chocolate biscuits, were the first to add cocoa butter and sugar to chocolate and mold it into a bar. Unfortunately, it still had a very bitter taste which would no doubt have hampered its popularity.

Getting the Taste Right
The final innovation came from Switzerland - and is perhaps the reason why the Swiss are famous for their chocolate today. Daniel Peter, a manufacturer, added powdered milk to the mix, making the bars much more palatable and then, to stay ahead of the competition, replaced that with condensed milk, giving that characteristic smooth texture and flavor associated with Swiss chocolate.

As you can see, chocolate has traveled the world, getting better and better all the time. So the next time you have a piece of chocolate, remember the history - and thank the Mayans!

Sharon Hurley Hall loves chocolate. She hopes to find some in her Christmas food hamper from Scottish Hampers.