History and Origins
- The cacao tree is classified in the Sterculiaceae family and is a member of the Theobroma Genus.
- The cacao tree is native to the Amazon Basin. It was domesticated by the Olmecs and Mokaya (Mexico and Central America).
- It was consumed in spiritual ceremonies by pre-Columbian cultures along the Yucatán, including the Maya, and as far back as Olmeca civilization.
- The Olmec passed their cacao traditions to the Maya who passed them to the Aztecs who passed them to the conquistadors of the fifteenth century.
- In ancient Central American cultures cacao beans were actually used as money! When the Spanish came to understand the value of cacao beans, they called them Black Gold (oro negro)
- The earliest known archaeological evidence of cacao was in a village in the present-day Honduras, where pottery evidence of cacao use dates back to 2000BC
- Christopher Columbus is said to have brought the first cocoa (cacao) beans back to Europe from his fourth visit to the ‘New World’ between 1502 and 1504. However, far more exciting treasures on board his galleons meant the humble cocoa beans were ignored.
- It was the Europeans who eventually combined cacao with refined sugar. In 1928 a Dutch chemist called Coenraad Johannes Van Houten received a patent to make a low-fat powdered chocolate – it was Van Houten who created what became known as Cocoa powder (see below).
- The invention of the milk chocolate was due to the collective efforts the Swiss Chemist Henri Nestle (1814-1890) and Swiss chocolate manufacturer Daniel Peter (1836-1919), the first milk chocolate bar was produced in 1879.