A Gift from the Gods: The History of Chocolate, from Mesoamerica to Paris Boutiques

A Gift from the Gods: The History of Chocolate, from Mesoamerica to Paris Boutiques
The history of chocolate, and its circuitous route to Paris, is not for the squeamish. From human sacrifice to the infamous Spanish Inquisition, the growing and harvesting of cacao seeds for the production of chocolate has tortured, enslaved, and seduced. The cacao tree was not domesticated in Central America as previously thought. Traces of cacao from a variety currently prized by the world’s chocolate industry were recently found in pottery jars by Ecuadorian and French archaeologists. Unlike the sweet bonbons we are used to indulge in today, the Mesoamericans consumed cacao, or “xocoatl” (bitter-water), 5,500 years ago in Ecuador’s Amazon region. They believed it was the “food of the gods.” The unsweetened drink — made from the seeds of large, melon-shaped pods that grew on the trunk of the tree — were ground and mixed in hot water with spices, berries, and herbs. The cacao (C) Rodrigo Flores, Unsplash Over centuries, the prized seeds were used in all facets of life: nutritional, medicinal, spiritual and financial. They were traded among the indigenous peoples, first to the Olmecs (1500-400 BC), who lived in the tropical lowlands of the Gulf of Mexico, then to the Mayan people (1500 BC-1000 AD) who inhabited the Yucatan peninsula, and finally to the Aztecs (1400-1521 AD) who ruled central and southern Mexico. Cacao was a symbol of abundance; it was a divine food, health elixir, and aphrodisiac – the gift of the Mesoamerican deity, Quetzalcóatl, the serpent god who created the cacao tree for humans. The first Europeans to encounter cacao were Christopher Columbus and his crew members on their fourth voyage to the New World. Arriving in what is present-day Nicaragua in 1502, Columbus was unimpressed by the “…curiously spicy and bitter drink…”, and misunderstood the importance of the plant’s use as a profitable crop. It was the Spanish Conquistador Hernán Cortés, known for his murderous conquest of Mexico on behalf of King Charles V (King of Castile and Aragon), who realized its potential value. Christopher Columbus (C) Sebastiano del Piombo, Public Domain, Wikipedia During the time Cortés spent in the capital of Tenochtitlan (modern-day Mexico City), he discovered cacao beans were used as the primary form of currency in the Aztec world: 100 cacao seeds purchased a slave, two hundred cacao seeds bought a male turkey, and 10 bought the services of a prostitute. At the time, Tenochtitlan was the largest city in the world, and it held the bounty of a vast and powerful empire. In addition to the gold and other riches Cortés looted, he found enormous stores of cacao beans. Indeed, there may have been as many as a billion cacao seeds in the royal treasury at one time. Cortés soon realized that cacao seeds held a much greater societal importance. He witnessed a grisly ceremony in which Aztec priests, using razor-sharp obsidian blades, sliced ​​open the chests of sacrificial victims and offered their still-beating hearts to the gods. The blood of the victims was then mixed with xocoatl and imbibed by the elites, symbolizing the circle of life and death. As hard as it is to imagine, many captured soldiers, slaves and Aztec citizens went willingly to the sacrificial altar offering their hearts to their sun god, Huitzilopochtli. It was an honor and a guaranteed ticket to a magical afterlife.

Lead photo credit : Chocolate (C) Tetiana Bykovets, Unsplash

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Sue Aran lives in the Gers department of southwest France. She is the owner of French Country Adventures, which provides private, personally-guided, small-group food & wine adventures into Gascony, the Pays Basque and Provence. She writes a monthly blog about her life in France and is a contributor to Bonjour Paris and France Today magazines.