Courtly Lives - The History and Lore of Chocolate

The History and Lore of Chocolate:
Written and researched by Margaret [nee Knight] Sypniewski. B.F.A.

La Planta del Cacao by Diego Rivera.


Call it chocolate, cacao, chocolatt, or Theobroma cacao as the tree was named by Swedish botanist Carl von Linne in 1758. Theobroma means "food of the gods," this was one of the most important plant products of ancient Mesoamerica. The Aztec and Maya called the drink xocoatl. Wisdom and power was thought to come from the drinking of xocoatl. A frothy mug of cacao was part of the twelfth century Mesoamerican ceremony. The Aztec also called it cacahualt.


"The Maya derived a lot of their high culture from the Olmec," said Michael Coe, in his book The True History of Chocolate. The word cacao was said to be originally from the Olmec language. The cacao tree originated in the tropical regions of Central and South America. It was thought that the Maya established the earliest known cacao plantations in 600 A.D.


The painting to the left, by Diego Rivera, shows natives gathering cacao fruit, which houses the cacao seeds. The cacao tree grows in the understory of tropical rainforests. The understory has only 2-5 percent of the sunlight that reaches the canopy. and there is less air circulation with high humidity. Most cacao today is grown on plantations. The cacao tree is a member of the family Sterculiaceae. The Cacao tree grows to a height of 30-40 feet.

Most cacao harvested today is grown on the Ivory Coast of Africa, and in Ghana, Indonesia, Nigeria, and Brazil. The Cacao tree is cauliflorus("stem flowering"); and its small white flowers grow on a special part of the trunk and lower branches that cushion the inevitable fruit. When the flowers are pollinated, the pods grow fast. The stalks get longer and thicker. In four or five months, the pod is 12 inches long and weighs a pound. Each fruit pod is filled with 20-70 large seeds. Thes seeds are in a green-yellow pod and are found in the midst of a white sticky pulp.


Cacao pods are harvested at the end of the rainy season until the first half of the dry season. Seven to fourteen pods are required to produce one pound of dry cacao. A healthy cacao tree bears more than 70 pods.


The seeds (beans) and the pulp is scooped out of the pod and left to ferment in wood "sweat boxes," covered with banana leaves. Bacteria and yeast get into the sweet pulp, turning it into alcohol and carbon dioxide. In 48 hours, the temperatures in the boxes reaches 120 degrees Fahrenheit, and the beans are turned. Then they are turned again in the next 48 hours. This process continues until fermentation takes place after six and one-half (6 1/2) days. The seeds turn a rich dark brown when they are ready.


After this the beans are spread out to dry in the sun, they are covered with straw mats or banana leaves during rain storms. The beans must be turned frequently to make sure they dry uniformly. This drying process takes approximately one to two weeks. When the drying process is completed the beans are only 6% moisture.


The beans are then transferred into a large barrel and are trampled, much like is done to prepare wine. In olden times, the workers did barefoot dances. These primitive methods are thought to bring out the best flavor and aroma of the cacao.


Then the seeds are dried and roasted. Then they are ground into a thick chocolate paste.

The Mayans have an excellent custom of helping each other in all their work. At planting time they joined together in bands of twenty workers. The most common occupation of the ancient Mayans was agriculture. The cacao tree is a member of the family Sterculiaceae. The Cacao tree grows to a height of 30-40 feet. Most cacao harvested today is grown on the Ivory Coast of Africa, and in Ghana, Indonesia, Nigeria, and Brazil.


Pre-Columbian natives consumed chocolate as a bitter, frothy beverage, mixed with chilies and spices. The formulas were generally only known to old women. To the Aztec culture, the drinking of chocolate was a religious experience. Here is one recipe:

Cacao is to be served cold.
Season with capsicum peppers, achiote (from annatto seed), vanilla, and maize (corn).
Add honey to taste (about 3T per cup).
After it is heated and the ingredients stirred smoothly together, let it cold.
There are many variations of this formula.


Cacao was the drink of kings, nobility, warriors, and merchants, and no peasant was allowed to consume chocolate in ancient times. After Spain imported cacao, it was sold privately to the upper classes of Europe until, in 1606, it became a worldwide commodity.

Whenever a banquet took place cacao was the drink of choice amongst the king/chief and his court. Friar Diego de Landa wrote in his book, Yucatan Before and After the Conquest, "The chiefs and leading men obliged each guest to return an invitation to his host; to each guest the host must give a roasted fowl and cacao drinks in abundance. The Yucatecans are very generous and hospitable; so no one enters their houses without being offered food and drink," and when visiting they always carry a gift, according to their station in life, and the one being visited returns the gifts with another.

In the tombs of the Mayans and Aztecs, there were cups that were used for the drinking of chocolate in the afterlife. In their tombs, in glyphs, was written:

"This is the chocolate drinking cup of ..... (insert the name of the dearly departed)."


Cacao has theobromine, a bitter alkaloid related to caffiene. Theobromine is an addictive, or habit forming stimulent. Theobromine has a protective effect by inhabiting bacteria such as Streptococcus, shigella, and staphylococcus, and related pathogens:

Cacao beans have a fine content of fat and these beans were put on wounds and infections to promotr healing. Concentrated theobromine can be a diuretic by increasing the flow of urine.


In the month of Muan, which begins on April 22rd, the owners of the cacao plantations traditionally plan a festival for the gods Ekchuah, Chac, and Hobnil. They were their protector gods. During this celebration, the owners will go to one of the cacao plantations, where they will sacrifice a spotted dog, the color of the cacao, while they burned incense to their gods.

The owners also offer up blue iguanas, certain bird feathers, and game such as turkey. Each of the officials was given a branch of the cacao fruit. After the sacrifice is over, they eat the gifts and drink honey wine. However, they did not drink more than three (3) draughts, which was all they are allowed to bring. Afterwards, they go to the house of the plantation owner and had a fiesta of various diversions, such as singing, dancing, and games. This information was reported, to us, by Friar Diego Landa in his 1566 manuscript. Landa was the Bishop of Yucatan and he confiscated and consigned, to the flames, many of the hieroglyphic books of the Maya. Landa thought these were "works of the devil." He also destroyed 5,000 idols. Thus many Mayan records and arts were lost to religious fanaticism. This is much like the Muslims burning the extensive ancient library of Alexandria, Egypt. These books were priceless in content!


Chac was the Mayan god of rain and lightning. Chac is one of the longest continuously worshipped gods of ancient Mesoamerica. He is the patron of agriculture. Chac was legended to have broken open a great rock containing the life giving maize (corn). Chac is called Tlaloc by the Aztecs. The rain lord is a master spirit, attended by several helpers. Chac is male.

Cortez reported that the Indians were of good physique, tall, robust, and of great strength. He wrote:

[Cacao is] "The divine drink which builds up resistence and fights fatique. A cup of this precious drink permits a man to walk for a whole day without any other food."

According to the legend, the Mayan god Ek Chuah (Ekchuah) was a patron of merchants and the protector of cacao growers, but it was Quetzalcoatl, the plumed serpent god, who brought cacao beans from heaven, and showed his people how to grow cacao trees.

Ancient codice and chronicles say that the Aztecs believed that the god Quetzalcoatl traveled to earth on a beam of the Morning Star with a cacao tree from paradise. The ancient Mexican cultures believed that Tonacateculli, the goddess of food, and Calchiuhtlucue, the goddess of water, were guardians goddesses of cacao. Humans sacrifices were performed yearly in their honor. The victims were served a cacao drink as their last meal.

Even today, on the Day of the Dead, offerings are taken to the graves of the dearly departed. Among the offerings are: marigolds, sugar skulls, a glass of water, and a dish of cacao beans. Chocolate mole is also an offering on the Day of the Dead.

The Maya, Aztec, and other tribal groups in Mexico, valued cacao so highly that they even used the cacao bean as currency. In 1502, Christopher Columbus brought cacao beans to King Ferdinand after his fourth visit to the New World, but they were overlooked in favor of other treasures. Columbus saw a Mayan trade canoe carrying cacao beans while traveling north along the Caribbean coast between Costa Rica and Nicaragua, heading back to Mexico. Hernan Cortez landed in Mexico in 1519, and visited King Montezuma. Cortez is attributed with taking this beverage back to Spain, even though Columbus was first. By the time the Spanish reached the Maya (in 1500s) everyone was drinking chocolate, both the rich and the poor. The Maya poured the chocolate drink back and forth between two drinking cups, thus making a thick head of foam. The foam was the coverted part.

Since chocolate was originally the drink of Kings, the Aztecs gave Cortez mounds of cacao beans (thinking he was a god-king). He traded his cacao for gold. However, he did bring some chocolate back to King Charles V. Monks processed the cacao beans and kept chocolate a secret for nearly a century. Chocolate built a lucrative industry for Spain, as they planted cacao trees in its colonies in Trinidad, Venezuela, Jamaica, Haiti, the Philippines, and Celebres Islands. However, in 1606, Antonio Carletti, a Spaniard living in Florence, Italy, discovered chocolate at a social event. Carletti then took cacao to France under the reign of King Louis XIII. Spains monopoly of the chocolate trade was then ended.


John Lloyd Stephens, the famous archaeologist and writer of Incidents of Travel in Yucatan," reported the use of cacao currency as late as the mid-nineteen (19th) century in the Yucatan, Mexico. Cacao beans were acceptable for paying taxes, in Mexico, until 1887. In the 16th century, the daily wage of a worker was forty cacao beans. Ten beans could buy a rabbit, while a slave would cost over one-hundred beans. As money it was called Kakawa. Stephens and Catherwood, an artist, traveled to the Yucatan peninsula in 1840 and left a wonderful written and pictorial record of all they saw there. Before their trip, little was known of the Mayan Culture. The Mayans were reported to have used cacao, as money, in Guatemala too.


Chocolate contains a compound that mimics a chemical in the brain that produces feelings of well-being, satisfaction, and even desire.

The filled chocolate candies produced by the millions and packaged in heart-shaped boxes for Valentine's Day weren't invented until 1913 (by the Swiss). The gift of chocolate to a beloved as a token of love is more than just tradition. Chocolate naturally contains phenylethylamine (PEA), a compound that, when eaten, releases endorphins in your brain, producing a mild feeling of euphoria that mimics the sensation of being in love. Natural chocolate also contains seratonin, theobromine and anandamine--compounds that contribute to enjoyable interpersonal relations by elevating mood and enhancing sensory perception.


After cacao was exported to Spain it spread around Europe until someone decided it tasted much better with sugar. (from a Martha Stewart article in the Saturday, February 6, 1999 Detroit News13D, 13-14)


In the 17th century, Europeans praised chocolate for its healing powers. They believed that chocolate aided digestion, stimulated the liver and kidneys (both organs of body detoxification), and strengthened the heart. It was used to treat anemia, tuberculosis, fever and gout.

Milk Chocolate is now the most popular chocolate for eating worldwide, but dark chocolate is the best for your health. Chocolate contains antioxidant flavonoids that help heart health. One health study reported that small daily doses of flavonoid-rich dark chocolate consumed over a two-week period boosts blood vessel function, improving circulation. Combining chocolate with milk, however, cancels out the antioxident effect, so milk chocolate or hot cocoa with milk won't provide this benefit. So eating milk chocolate does not have the same effects.

So if you made chocolate with honey, like the Mesoamericans did, you would be better off. Even if it is bitter.


Even if dark chocolate is more bitter, it is the healthiest choice. Today Dove brand dark chocolate is the best of the regularly available brands. Sugar is the addictive that ruins the health benefits of chocolate today.

Chocolate does contain caffeine, but very little compared to other sources. A 10-ounce cup of coffee has 170 milligrams of caffeine, a 10-ounce cup of tea has 60 milligrams, compared to 6 milligrams in one ounce of chocolate candy or a 10 ounce glass of chocolate milk.

Now when you eat chocolate think of the ancient Mayans and Aztecs and what Cortez said about how chocolate helps you. Even then they knew what has taken the medical community centuries to rediscover. All chocolates "Bad Press" was due to the high sugar content, not the cacao.


"Ancient Chocolate Found in Maya Teapot" by Bijal Trivedi. National Geographic Today. July 17, 2002.

Ayensu (editor), Edward S. The Life and Mysteries of the Jungle. New York: Crescent Books, 1980.

Bierhorst, John. The Mythology of Mexico and Central America. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1990.

de Landa, Friar Diego. Yucatan Before and After the Conquest. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1978 (from a 1566 manuscript).

Miller, Mary and Karl Taube. The Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1993.

Sparrows, M.A. (editor), Linda. Ancient Healing Lincolnwood, IL.: Publications International, Ltd., 1997.

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