Mmm, chocolate, the “food of the gods.” Dark, creamy, silken, melting, we associate it with hedonistic, sinful indulgence and enjoyment. But while the route of chocolate from Mesoamerica to modern global consumption is fairly straightforward and well understood, the production of chocolate is so complex and delicate that it is amazing we eat it at all.
Chocolate is the eventual product of the tree called Theobroma cacao, native to a range roughly from Mexico to Venezuela and the upper Amazon. Christopher Columbus, on his fourth trip to the Americas, was the first European to encounter and record evidence of cacao - as a currency of exchange among native people. He and his crew also tasted the native cacao drink, but they disliked it and paid it no more attention.
Cacao remained something of a curiosity until Cortéz invaded Aztec Mexico, though the native drink was still distasteful to the Spaniards, at first. Quickly, though, the conquistadors developed a taste for it, as the longer they remained in the Americas, the more Aztec foods they came to eat.
The Aztec drink was water-based, coarse, bitter, and spicy, with chillis, pepper, annatto seeds (for red color), and cornmeal. The Spanish introduced sugar and mixed in larger amounts of cinnamon and vanilla, gradually leaving out other spices. It was this modified preparation, sweeter and lightly spiced, that was introduced into the Spanish court in the 16th Century and gradually conquered the European palate.
“Too much chocolate” is not just a modern peccadillo. Even by 1590, a scant 70 years after Cortéz, Father Acosta wrote with some admonishment that Spaniards living in Mexico consumed huge amounts of cacao drinks. Similar habits of conspicuous chocolate consumption became common in the courts of Europe over the following two centuries, reminiscent of Montezuma’s own legendarily massive cacao diet.