The story of chocolate goes a long way back, to one of the oldest cultures in North America. The Olmecs were a civilization which inhabited the lands of Southern Mexico around 3,000 years ago. Unfortunately, they kept no written history, but that does not mean that there isn’t anything left of them. Archaeologists have unearthed many ancient relics and, based on traces found on them, they believe they were the very first people ever to make use the cacao tree. However, the Olmecs did not use it like we do today to make chocolate bars, but instead fermented the sweet pulp, which surrounds the cacao beans within their pod, into a kind of alcoholic beverage. In fact, for most of history chocolate was drank, instead of eaten. This practice inevitably spread throughout all neighboring cultures and soon the cacao became one of the most valuable items in Ancient America.
For the Mayans it was a revered drink, believed to have magical and divine powers. They dried, roasted and ground the cacao beans and then mixed them with chilies, honey and water. Into was a thick, bitter beverage, which they poured between pots until it became foamy. It was used during celebrations, as well as at the end of important negotiations. Despite it being very valuable, it was available to all parts of society and was often consumed during meals.
The Aztec took this custom even further. For them the cacao was a gift, given to them by the gods themselves. Cacao beans were often used as currency and were worth more than their weight in gold. Unlike the Mayans, it was a drink reserved only for the upper class, while the rest could only afford it special occasions like birth, marriage or death. It was also used as a ceremonial drink during rituals. Seen as a metaphor for the heart, torn out in sacrifice, chocolate, mixed with human blood, was given to victims before sending them to their deaths.
It isn’t exactly clear when chocolate made its was to Europe, but it was brought there for certain by one of the early Spanish conquerors during their voyages into the New World. One legend claims it was Columbus himself who brought it back, another that it was introduced to Hernán Cortés in the court of Montezuma. If there is any truth to these stories or if was some other, unknown figure, we will probably never know, but by the end of the 16th century it was a favorite drink throughout the Spanish court and soon after the rest of Europe. However, the original drink was much too bitter for the European taste, so they mixed into it a variety of spices, as well as cane sugar and cinnamon.
Chocolate remained largely unchanged until the 19th century. Then in 1847 a British chocolatier, J.S. Fry created the first chocolate bar from sugar paste, chocolate liquor and cocoa butter. 30 years later two Swiss, Daniel Peter and Henri Nestle, added milk powder to it and soon after founded the Nestle company. Despite the milk, the bars were still hard and difficult to chew. Finally, Rudolf Lindt came up with a technique to mix air into the chocolate paste, making it smooth and melty, similar to the chocolate we are used to today.
Nowadays chocolate has a reputation of being quite unhealthy, largely due to the large quantities of sugar mixed into it. While that surely is true, that does not mean that it does not come with some benefits. Researchers in the Martin Luther University in Germany have discovered that it actually contains significant doses of vitamin D2. Humans usually produce vitamin D when we are exposed to sunshine, which means that many suffer from a deficiency during the shorter days of winter. It can however be obtained by consuming some food products like eggs or milk and as it turns out, anything made out of cocoa. Apparently, there is a fungus, not unlike yeast, which grows onto the cocoa beans and produces a chemical called ergosterol. Whenever exposed to UV light, like when they are drying in the sun, this chemical turns to vitamin D. It is still different to the one, made by humans, which is vitamin D3, and you would need to consume much more of it to get your daily dose. In fact, it amounts to around half a kilo of dark chocolate per day.