Chocolate as we know it now is actually a relatively modern convention. However, chocolate has been enjoyed by man for about 3500 years. The cacao plant, from which chocolate is made, has been cultivated for at least 3000 years.
The cacao plant is native to the rainforests of South America, particularly the northwest in what is now Venezuela. The Olmecs and the Mayan civilizations are both credited with being the earliest to cultivate the plant. Both used it to make a spicy drink that was carried by soldiers on long treks. Eventually, the plant was spread northward by the Mayans into the land of the Aztecs in the Yucatan Peninsula of modern-day Mexico where it was adopted by other Meso-American tribes. The cacao plant was so valued that the seeds of the plant were used as a form of currency among native tribes.
For the early Meso-Americans, chocolate was a strong, bitter-flavored paste with little resemblance to the smooth, sweet creamy chocolate we know today. The pods were fermented, roasted and then ground into a paste. The paste was mixed chile peppers, cornmeal, and hot water and imbibed as a liquid, either hot or cold.
By the 1400s, the Aztec Empire had reached a peak, having conquered most of its neighbors. The cacao plant remained an important part of the culture, with seeds being paid as tribute by conquered foes and used as sacred offerings by priests. When European explorers first encountered cacao they were not impressed by it. It took many years before it caught on in Europe. Both Columbus and Cortes are credited with having brought the cacao seeds back to Spain, but the beans that the Aztecs valued so highly met at first with little regard in Spain.
Once in Europe in the 1500s, the traditional cacao beverage was considered bitter and unappealing, until additives including cinnamon, vanilla and sugar were added. The new, sweeter drink caught on, helped by the Catholic Church, who allowed followers to consume the beverage even on fast days. By the 1600s, the chocolate drink was being served in specialty chocolate houses all across Europe. Its popularity caught on particularly well in Austria, the Netherlands, and Belgium. It was the Dutch who eventually turned the cacao into cocoa butter by adding milk, water and fat. The Belgians had access to great cacao plantations in the Congo and became some of the world's leading chocolatiers.
British chocolatier, Joseph Fry, eventually formed the first molded chocolate bar. Fry added the cocoa butter back to Dutch cocoa powder to form a sticky paste that could be pressed and formed into a bar. Eating chocolate soon became as popular as drinking it.
With its initial surge in popularity in Europe, chocolate became heavily taxed and was considered a luxury item. In the mid-1800s, Prime Minister Gladstone of Great Britain reduced taxes on chocolate, making it more affordable for the entire population. In America chocolate was popular both as a drink and as a bar, but was not widely available until Hershey started producing chocolate in the 1890s.
Today, chocolate is available for eating and drinking and in many varieties from milk chocolate to dark chocolate. Prices range from the extremely affordable Hershey bar to luxurious and expensive specialty chocolates such as Godiva and Vosges.
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Xoacotl.org: The History of Chocolate
Chocolate.org: Cacao and the Chocolate Timeline