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FOOD TODAY 05/2001

The Origins of Cocoa - The Food of the Gods

Food TodayThe wholesome nature of cocoa has been widely acclaimed in Europe since the sixteenth century. However, to understand where this image originated one has to go back to the folklore of the Indians of Central America, who regarded 'cacao' as an elixir.

Gold, silver and precious stones were not the only treasures brought back by the
Spanish conquistadors led by Hernando Cortés in the early 1500's. They also discovered a small brown bean, which the Indians used to make a bitter but flavourful drink known as 'xocoatl' or 'chocolatl', whence the words cacao, cocoa and the chocolate of today. To the Aztec emperor Montezuma, this chocolate drink was for warriors and the élite, and it had great sacred and ceremonial importance as a drink fit for the gods. The Swedish botanist Linnaeus, who was aware of cacao's reputation, assigned the plant species to a genus, which he named Theobroma cacao L.- the 'food of the gods'.

Cacao reached the Old World in 1544, when the beans were presented to the future Philip II of Spain. The Spanish nobility were so entranced that they kept cacao secret from outsiders for nearly a hundred years. At that time, the drink must almost certainly have tasted like a medicine and it was consumed for its medicinal and even aphrodisiacal benefits! News of the drink, by now often flavoured with cinnamon and vanilla, gradually spread to the rest of Europe.

In 1615, when the Spanish princess Anne married King Louis XIII of France, she brought along the recipe for chocolate as part of her dowry, and the first recorded chocolate drinker in France was Cardinal Richelieu, who enjoyed it as a food and as an aid to digestion.

The English had to wait until around 1657 for cacao drinks to be sold in the London chocolate-drinking houses. Samuel Pepys, the famous diarist, frequented these fashionable meeting places, which became the precursors of many gentlemen's clubs, including the Garrick Club, which began life as 'The Cocoa Tree Chocolate House'.

In the seventeenth century, the Spaniards began growing cacao beans on the island of Fernando Po, off the coast of Africa. However, the major development of cocoa as a world commodity began around the 1880s, when the British introduced plantations in what is now Ghana. The west coast of Africa is still the largest cocoa-producing area of the world but cocoa is also a cash crop grown in Central America and the West Indies, and in parts of Asia such as Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines, where it is an important part of the national economies.

The history of cocoa and chocolate has seen them change from being expensive luxuries to products of mass consumption. Their wider availability reflects the changes in the nature and composition of the products, their move from being perceived as a bitter-tasting medicine to a delicious food, and the innovative technologies that make them more affordable. Today, chocolate, a divine product and a royal product, remains a world favourite.


  • Chocolate and Cocoa Health and Nutrition. (1999) Edited by Ian Knight. Blackwell Science Ltd, Oxford
  • Davidson, A. Chocolate botany and early history. In The Oxford Companion to Food. (1999) Oxford University Press, Oxford
  • Othick, J. (1976) The cocoa and chocolate industry in the nineteenth century. in The Making of the modern British Diet. Edited by Derek Oddy and D. S. Miller, Croon Helm, London
  • Schenker, S. Chocolate. British Nutrition Foundation Bulletin (2000) 25, 199-200
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