History of Chocolate

Why are we chocoholics at Melt? To answer this simple question we first delved into the HISTORY of CHOCOLATE to understand how people have used chocolate over the millennia. This is a fascinating story of gods, human sacrifice, money and seduction.

Chocolate and the Gods

The “food of the Gods” naturally has a rich spirituality from the Olmecs to the Papacy. Chocolate rose to prominence in the Olmec culture in the Northern region of Latin America. These Olmecs were clever people - creating the concept of Zero in mathematics, utilizing a calendar and creating a writing system, while the world owes them a debt of gratitude as they were the first to cultivate cocoa. They also had some rather horrible habits – such as human sacrifice with cocoa pods arranged around their victim’s neck like a necklace. The Cocoa beans were there to signify a gift to the Gods and a hope of appeasement. These Olmec myths and rituals would later become the basis of the Mayan and Aztec civilizations.

The Aztec chocolate God was Quetzacoatl – the god of civilization and learning. He is associated with the creation myth – whereby he gave his blood to some bones to create the first living humans. He was therefore considered the god of fertility and the “White Morning Star”. Myth has it that he gave cocoa to man and for this blasphemous act was banished from earth. (A little like Prometheus, who gave us fire and was punished for this act by having ravens eat his heart out on a monthly basis.) A similar fate was handed to his worshipper – Montezuma. When Hernan Cortes, the Spanish Conquistador, arrived in 1519, it was rumoured that the Aztecs and Montezuma in particular, thought he was Quetzacoatl returning from a far off paradise - hence the association with the “White Morning star” – This misconception greatly facilitated his conquest!! Unfortunately for Montezuma, he was attacked and killed by his own people for his betrayal of their interests – the giveaway being when Cortes behaved in a less than godly fashion.

The Aztecs also liked a bit of human sacrifice as they believed that the sun needed a sacrifice of blood to help it confront the jaguar of the night and ensure it rose again the next day. The Cocoa tree with its thick, dark blood-like liquid (don’t forget that chocolate melts at the same temperature as blood) was an ideal gift to complement human offerings to the rapacious gods. The pink colours of the sky at dusk and at sunrise were the blood the sun lost to survive each night, and it was essential that this lost blood was replaced by gifts – both human and chocolate.

This association of Cocoa with fertility is timeless -probably due to the similarity of Cocoa pods to female breasts – and there are Mayan sculptures which show Mayan gods with cocoa pods instead of breasts.

In Catholic Spain – while it did not reach the spiritual heights of the Mayans - for some reason the Papacy ruled that it was a drink, so “eating” chocolate did not break their fast – not surprisingly it was very popular amongst the religious orders – particularly during fasts!! However other intellectuals were not so sure and in 1624 Johan Francisas, a professor in Vienna condemned chocolate as an “inflamer of Passions”. At Melt we tend to agree with him.

Chocolate Warriors

Chocolate played a small but important part in the Allied Victory in WWII. The D-Day landings on the Normandy beaches were the largest military invasion every assembled.  But before the Americans invaded Germany, they invaded Britain.  Britain became a "huge aircraft carrier" for almost 3 million American troops who passed through our country on their way to war. These GIs had a profound cultural influence on Britain and in particular, brought chocolate bars and Coca-cola in a seemingly amazing abundance. For their British invasion, chocolate was one of their "weapons" of choice.

For the British population, who suffered heavy rationing on even basic foods like cream, eggs, and even potatoes - this plentiful new supply of chocolate must have felt heaven sent. Does this explain the origins of the special relationship?

Sugar, sweets and chocolate rationing in Britain started in 1942, only finishing in 1953. Fundamentally all chocolate was directed towards military use and the war effort. Civilians in many cases never tasted chocolate throughout the entire war. For those lucky enough to get chocolate or sugar in their rations, it would only amount to the maximum 16oz to as little 8oz a month. A simple chocolate bar and cola cubes would have been an unbelievable highlight for those lucky few, most likely acquired on the black market.

American and British troops had chocolate bars as standard issue in their 24 hrs D-ration packs, including on D-Day itself. Eyewitness accounts of British and American troops eating chocolate on the front-line, state how much comfort they derived from the simple taste of chocolate. That chocolate accompanied the troops, was no accident. It was provided on D-Day for a specific reason - it is a high energy food and the caffeine provided a powerful stimulant - keeping the soldiers alert and engaged.  Chocolate provided an important morale boost at critical moments during the fighting. 

In many ways chocolate was one of the most demoralizing weapons employed by America during WW2. When Germany didn't even have enough fuel for their tanks, America was flying chocolate halfway across the world. The Germans were well aware of this and anytime they captured American supplies it was yet another reminder of Germany's shortcomings.

The US military had requested a specially designed bar for emergency rations as early as 1937. They had just four requests: the bar had to weigh 4 ounces, be high in energy, withstand high temperatures and “taste a little better than a boiled potato.” The final product was called the “D ration bar”, a blend of chocolate, sugar, cocoa butter, skim milk powder and oat flour. 

Chocolate played an important role in winning the War.  Between 1940 and 1945 over 3 billion Field Rations D, including the famous chocolate bar were distributed by the American's to Allied troops throughout the world.  If an army marches on its stomach, these rations kept the military powered enough to win the battle at Normandy and claim ultimate victory against the Axis forces. Amazingly these vintage bars can still be eaten today.

US military took a step further as  they wanted a chocolate that was designed to be taken into the jungle and eaten as both food and a stimulant for troops in their efforts against the Japanese. They were concerned about chocolate’s tendency to melt into a sticky mess before it could be consumed by their troops. The best brains in America applied their minds to this problem and in 1941 brightly coloured pieces of candy-coated chocolate were designed. They were the product of Forrest Mars and Bruce Marri, from Herseys. Hence the name “M&M”’s – with the slogan “the milk chocolate that melts in your mouth – not in your hand”. We at Melt, handmake chocolates to melt in your mouth.

As the soldiers discovered, dark Chocolate is full of a natural high from phenylethylamine. This chemical which occurs in chocolate in small quantities, stimulates the nervous system and triggers the release of mood enhancing compounds knows as endorphins. When mixed with real Kola Nuts from Sierra Leone, the chocolate bar provides a wonderful boost of natural energy and the feelings of pleasure. Kola Nuts are full of caffeine and were one of the original ingredients for cola drinks. Cocoa from volcanic soil in the Solomon Islands is blended with naturally sourced Kola nuts from the tropical rainforest of Africa. This is ideal mixture for chocolate warriors or those taking exams - who need a burst of natural energy and a morale boost.

Back in June 1944, Thérèse le Chevalier was a 15-year-old boarding school girl living near Bernières-sur-Mer, the stretch of coastline now known as Juno Beach.  A gift she remembers most clearly on D-Day is the little tin of chocolate the allied soldiers gave her, which could be heated up as a drink.

Thérèse closes her eyes in ecstasy as she recalls tasting it, watching the battalions of Canadian and British soldiers.  "Honestly," she sighs, "I never drank such chocolate in all my life!".  Melt creates the best hot chocolate in London.

The Aztecs used chocolate as a stimulant for their army and it seems to have worked as they soon dominated their region. Warriors would consume a cup of hot chocolate before battle. 

Queen Victoria probably hoping for a similar result, sent half a million pounds of chocolate to her troops stationed in South Africa during the Boer war. Eventually it seems to have worked too.

Chocolate and Gold

The Mayans used cocoa beans as their form of currency – given where our paper currency is heading, perhaps they were financially smarter than we give them credit. Their currency wouldn’t suffer from devaluation or inflation unlike our own!!! Thirty beans would buy you a chicken or a rabbit and a slave for about 100. When the Spanish Conquistadors came to Emperor Montezuma’s temple they found records showing that he had over 40,000 loads of cocoa beans in his store, which represents approximately 960,000,00 beans.

If you wanted to marry in Mayan culture you needed to offer over 350 beans as a dowry – an indication that you were serious and intent on marriage and a man of “means or beans”. 

Christopher Columbus was offered gifts of chocolate beans by the natives when he arrived on Giandula. The story goes that some beans fell to the bottom of the canoe the natives were paddling and they quickly scrambled to pick them up. However, he didn’t seem to pick up this important hint and of course he did not recognise them - probably mistaking them for old, shrivelled almonds. Actually the Cocoa bean almost ended up like the potato as the Spanish considered them both only fit for pigs, but being forced to drink cocoa because the local water made them sick - they soon acquired the taste and became intoxicated by its flavours.

Unfortunately the British made the same mistake as Columbus – when attacking a Spanish vessel they boarded it to find only rotten almonds in its holds. Angry – they set alight to the vessel – not of course realising that these were cocoa beans and worth their weight in Gold!!

Chocolate and Love

Cortes introduced Chocolate to the Spanish king, King Charles V, probably in the belief that it must be an aphrodisiac if Montezuma drank fifty cups a day and kept his harem so busy. King Charles must have been impressed but preferred his chocolate sweeter and more frothy. (The Mayans seem to prize the foam on top of their chocolate drink, a bit like a modern cappuccino.) With the King drinking it and rumours of its Aprodisiac qualities – in no time it was an aristocratic and church favourite. 

The French, Italian and English were keen on spying on each other – so ideas tended to spread around Europe quite quickly – but it still took approximately 100 years for it to be fully adopted in the rest of Europe – with a Spanish Princess getting the credit for introducing it to the French Court. 

Once in the hands of the French Court – it was no surprise that chocolate became associated with sex. Madame du Barry was reputed to encourage her lovers to drink chocolate in order to keep up with her.

The Marquis de Sade was a lover of chocolate – he wrote to his wife during one of his many incarcerations –“I wish for Chocolate cake so dense that it is black like the devil’s ass is blackened by smoke”. I think we know what he meant – he likes dark chocolate the best.

Casanova called chocolate the “elixir of love” – and often consumed a cup of hot chocolate prior to his conquests. Casanova was a well known gourmet writer of his time – so his views on chocolate carry considerable weight.

While the French added sex – the Italians added nuts – creating Gianduja, a chocolate hazelnut paste named from the small island where Columbus first saw cacao beans.

Chocolate and Revolution

For the Americans – chocolate was a chance to snub the English and their tea and so during the war of Independence, drinking chocolate soon became a colonial favourite and a sign of a true Patriot.

Chocolate Entrepreneurs

The Quakers accepted Chocolate for its health and medicinal values and believed drinking chocolate was much healthier than alcohol - and how right they are – with the Muslims also adopting this philosophy today. Joseph Rowntree and George Cadbury being two famous Quaker chocolatiers. John Fry, an English doctor and Quaker was one of the first to really industrialize chocolate - a process we are rapidly trying to undo at Melt. One famous chocolate house, White's Club, was so popular that it had to charge admission and gradually transformed itself into the Gentlemen’s club on St James Street – now you need not only to pay admission but also be a duke.

In 1879 Cadbury built a factory in Bournville, England and provided housing and recreational facilities to employees – a model later adopted by Milton Hersey. Unfortunately the slaves from Africa didn’t fare quite so well – and one could argue conditions have improved very little. Melt sources its chocolate from Venezuela, Colombia and the Carribean – avoiding West African grown chocolate and working with small producers – often in co-operatives that both grow the beans and also sell the chocolate.

The Swiss introduced better machinery to the Chocolate making business – with Rudolphe Lindt creating a conching machine (“because his rollers were shaped like a seashell”) to make a smoother chocolate – or the fondant that we know today and Daniel Peter and Henri Nestle created the condensed milk that meant a milk bar would not spoil – hence the association of milk chocolate with Switzerland.