I'm Bob Doughty.
And I'm Shirley Griffith with EXPLORATIONS in VOA Special English. Today we travel around the world exploring the history of chocolate. Its story begins with a plant whose scientific name, Theobroma cacao, means "food of the gods." For centuries, people have been enjoying the rich flavor of chocolate, a product made from this plant.
Join us as we tell about the history of chocolate and how it is produced. We will also meet Jane Morris, a chocolate maker in Washington, DC.
Cacao fruit with seeds
Most people today think of chocolate as something sweet to eat or drink than can be easily found in stores around the world. It might surprise you that chocolate was once highly treasured.
Historians believe the Maya people of Central America first learned to farm cacao plants around two thousand years ago. The Maya took the cacao trees from the rainforests and grew them in their gardens. They cooked the cacao seeds, then crushed them into a soft paste. They mixed the paste with water and flavorful spices to make an unsweetened chocolate drink. The Maya poured the chocolate drink back and forth between two containers so that the liquid had a layer of bubbles, or foam.
Cacao and chocolate were an important part of Maya culture. There are often images of cacao plants on Maya buildings and art objects. Ruling families drank chocolate at special ceremonies. And, even poorer members of society could enjoy the drink once in a while. Historians believe that cacao seeds were also used in marriage ceremonies as a sign of the union between a husband and wife.
Detail of a picture showing Aztecs making chocolate as part of a religious ceremony
The Aztec culture in current day Mexico also prized chocolate. But, the cacao plant could not grow in the area where the Aztecs lived. So, they traded to get cacao. They even used cacao seeds as a form of money to pay taxes or give as holy offerings to the gods.
Only the very wealthy people in Aztec societies could afford to drink chocolate because cacao was so valuable. The Aztec ruler Montezuma was believed to drink fifty cups of chocolate every day.
Some experts believe the word for chocolate came from the Aztec word "xocolatl" which in the Nahuatl language means "bitter water." Others believe the word "chocolate" was created by combining Mayan and Nahuatl words.
The explorer Christopher Columbus brought cacao seeds to Spain after his trip to Central America in fifteen oh two. But it was the Spanish explorer Hernando Cortes who understood that chocolate could be a valuable investment. In fifteen nineteen, Cortes arrived in current day Mexico. He believed the chocolate drink would become popular with Spaniards. After the Spanish soldiers defeated the Aztec empire, they were able to seize the supplies of cacao and send them home. Spain later began planting cacao in its colonies in the Americas in order to supply the large demand for chocolate.
The wealthy people of Spain first enjoyed a sweetened version of the chocolate drink. Later, the popularity of the drink spread throughout Europe. The English, Dutch and French began to plant cacao trees in their own colonies. Chocolate remained a drink that only wealthy people could afford to drink until the eighteenth century. During the period known as the Industrial Revolution, new technologies helped make chocolate less costly to produce.
Farmers grow cacao trees in many countries in Africa, Central and South America. The trees grow in the shady areas of rainforests near the Earth's equator. But these trees can be difficult to grow.
They require an exact amount of water, warmth, soil and protection. After about five years, cacao trees start producing large fruits called pods, which grow near the trunk of the tree. The seeds inside this pod are harvested to make chocolate.
There are several kinds of cacao trees. Most of the world's chocolate is made from the forastero tree. But farmers can also grow criollo or trinitario cacao plants. Cacao trees grown on farms are much more easily threatened by disease and insects than wild trees are.
Growing cacao is very hard work for farmers. They sell their harvest on a futures market. This means that economic conditions beyond their control can affect the amount of money they will earn.
Today, chocolate industry officials, activists, and scientists are working with farmers. They are trying to make sure that cacao can be grown in a way that is fair to the farmers and safe for the environment.