Rio History: The Chocolate Highway of the Aztecs







By Steve Hathcock

Before chocolate was a sweet candy, it was a spicy drink. Some would say it is the oldest known soft drink still consumed by modern civilization in the Americas today. 

Long before the first Europeans set foot in the new world, a vast trading network stretched from the highlands of Mexico to the jungles of Central America. Aztec traders from Mexico carried gold and gems to the Mayan cities to the south and returned with baskets filled with cacao. The Aztecs also demanded cacao as tribute from those they had conquered. Cacao was valuable partly because the Aztecs couldn’t grow it themselves and had to import it from far away. And for this reason, cacao wasn’t for sale in markets. Merchants kept the seeds locked up like money in a cash register. When Aztec people went shopping, cacao seeds served as cash. They used cacao seeds to buy and sell everything from cooking pots to clothes and food. The seeds were valuable and easy to carry, like having a pocket full of coins. The Spaniards first became aware of cacao when one of Hernando Cortez’s officers was served a cup of frothy chocolate (Xocolatl) liberally laced with vanilla known by the Aztecs as, Thilxochitl.  The Spaniards were soon hooked on this new drink and shortly afterwards, in 1521, when Cortés defeated Montezuma’s warriors in battle, the conquistadors demanded the Aztec nobles hand over their treasures, including warehouses full of cacao, or be killed.

As a result, cacao, a treasured treat and a form of Aztec money, became one of the spoils of war. The Spaniards seized the Aztec’s supply of cacao and vanilla and began to demand it from the same peoples from whom the Aztecs had demanded tribute. In 1544, a group of Dominican friars took a delegation of native peoples to visit Prince Philip in Spain. These captives gave his majesty his first taste of chocolate, which quickly became the fashionable trend in the Spanish court. Because of its early colonization of the Americas, Spain held a monopoly on chocolate for many years. Only the wealthiest and most well-connected Spanish nobility could afford this expensive import.

Chocolate remained a well kept Spanish secret for over 100 years until English pirates discovered a cargo of chocolate on a captured galleon and introduced the drink to England. About the same time, an Italian merchant purchased the secret of chocolate while on a business trip in Spain. 

The new elixir spread to other nations and it is believed that vanilla was first used as a flavoring material in its own right some years later in England. 

The Europeans couldn’t get enough of this new drink. In France, chocolate was a state monopoly. According to legend, the French court’s love of chocolate was sealed when it’s new, self-confessed chocoholic queen, Anne of Austria (daughter of King Philip III of Spain), married Louis XIII in 1615. Chocolate became an instant status symbol, and by decree, no one but members of the French aristocracy were allowed to drink it. 

In England, anyone with money could drink chocolate. The first chocolate house opened in London in 1657. Like coffee shops, which became popular much later, chocolate houses were places to enjoy a hot drink, discuss politics, socialize, and gamble.

Many Europeans drank chocolate for medicinal reasons. They believed it could induce sleep, aid digestion, purify the blood, and more. Some Europeans also believed chocolate was an aphrodisiac. (Montezuma reportedly consumed over fifty cups of the brew a day in order to heighten his libido).

In the early 1700’s, a Frenchman named Doret invented a hydraulic machine to grind cacao seeds into a paste. Not long afterward, another Frenchman by the name of Dubuisson, created the steam-driven chocolate mill. These mechanical mills relieved people from the labor-intensive process of grinding cacao. With the invention of mechanical mills it became possible to grind huge amounts of cacao and mass-produce chocolate inexpensively and quickly. New ingredients also improved chocolate’s texture and taste. In 1815, Van Houten added alkaline salts to powdered chocolate, which helped it to mix better with water and gave it a darker color and milder flavor. And in 1875, Daniel Peter and Henri Nestlé teamed up to introduce condensed milk to chocolate. Their smooth, creamy “milk chocolate” rapidly became a popular favorite.

A steady stream of new inventions and advertising helped set the stage for solid chocolate candy and chocolate continues to be as addictive today as it was five hundred years ago.

Many attempts were made to grow vanilla plants in other parts of the world, but all ended in failure. It was not until 1836 that Charles Morren of France, discovered the secret that made it possible for vanilla to be produced in several parts of the world.  Morren realized the vanilla flower, is actually double-sexed and needs to be pollinated by an outsider. In its native Mexican environment, the process of pollination was handled quite efficiently by a very small bee, called Melipone, which exists only in Mexico. This important discovery led to experimentation in the field of artificial pollinations.

Today, machines made chocolate a mass-produced treat.

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1 comment

    • Bryan Jennings on September 17, 2020 at 6:38 am
    • Reply

    Now we know how we got the term ” Montezuma’s revenge”
    Been reading Steve for years….great writer and historian.

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