The oldest evidence of cocoa use is probably its residue in a ceramic pot recovered from an archaeological site at Rio Azul in north-east Guatemala. This suggests the use of cocoa by the Olmec people, perhaps 3000 years ago.

Cocoa (Theobroma cocao) was used prominently in the Mayan and Aztec cultures. The preparation involved harvesting the beans and removing them from their pods, fermenting, roasting, and grinding them into paste. The cocoa paste was mixed with water, and often corn, chili peppers and vanilla or other spices were added. Then it was mixed into a frothy beverage and drunk from gourds or even golden vessels. Consumed on various occasions by many, cocoa was a regular beverage of the privileged, such as priests, rulers, warriors and other people of high social status.

According to a seafaring folklore, Christopher Columbus and his crew were first introduced to cocoa in 1502. When the Santa Maria was moored near the island of Guanaja on the coast of Honduras, it was visited by an Aztec chief who brought some gifts. Among them were cocoa beans and, in addition, the Aztecs offered to exchange some of the cocoa beans for goods aboard the ship. The Spaniards did not know that the beans were common currency in those parts of America. To educate the explorers, Aztecs prepared the drink called cacahuatl – ‘bitter water.’

Columbus and his people failed to appreciate this bitter and spicy delicacy. Later, Columbus described cocoa beans as ‘almonds, which are called cacao and serve as coins in New Spain.

Hot chocolate
Hot chocolate Image: Public Domain
© Public Domain

Sometimes unreliable, Girolamo Benzoni, in his book Historia del Mondo Nuovo, published in Venice in 1565 reported ‘They call the fruit cacauate [cacahuatl] and use it for money. The tree on which it grows is not very tall, and only thrives in hot, shady places, as even minimal exposure to the sun kills it.’ Slowly Benzoni developed an appetite for cacahuatl: ‘Its taste is not all bitter, it nourishes and refreshes the body, and is not intoxicating.’

In 1585, the first commercial shipment of cocoa beans was brought to Seville by the Spanish sailors returning from Veracruz. The Spanish took up cocoa drinking with relish, and set a new preparation method. By mixing the bean paste with boiling water they made it into a hot drink, flavoured with ginger, cinnamon, pepper, nutmeg and sugar. Hot chocolate was born!

Cocoa began to be transported from Mexico to Spain not just in the form of dried beans, but also in pressed slabs – a precursor of the chocolate tablet.

Additional information:

Recipe for Aztec Chocolate: Grate the unsweetened ‘cooking’ chocolate into a bowl and add some boiling water. Mash the mixture into a paste; then add more water and vanilla. Beat it with an electric mixer until frothy. Add pepper and chilies to liven up the drink.

The chocolate will not totally dissolve – it will have a gritty texture. For a more authentic drink let the mixture cool and then beat it again until frothy.