Chocolate is one of those things that we take for granted and probably can’t imagine not having around. And yet, like so many other things, its origins are relatively recent. No chocolate cakes were served at the first Thanksgiving, for instance. George Washington never ate a chocolate candy bar.
Chocolate is made from the seed of the cacao tree. The cacao tree has been cultivated by people for at least three thousand years in Mexico, Central, and South America. Both the Aztecs and the Mayas made drinks from the beans, which must be fermented, then dried, cleaned and roasted before they can be used The beans, once the shell has been removed, are ground and liquefied. This liquid can then be processed to form two components: cocoa solids and cocoa butter. Unsweetened chocolate is made of a mixture of cocoa solids and cocoa butter. Sweet chocolate is created by mixing it with sugar. Milk chocolate is made by mixing sweet chocolate with milk in either powdered or condensed form. White chocolate is made from cocoa butter, sugar and milk minus the cocoa solids. Europeans didn’t know about chocolate until the Spaniards conquered Mexico in the 1500s.
The first chocolate house opened in London in 1657. Chocolate came to Paris in 1659—three hundred fifty years ago. In both cases, chocolate was almost always served as a drink. No candy form existed. Until the early 1800s cocoa beans were ground into a fine mass that could be mixed with milk to create a chocolate drink, or, if mixed with vanilla, sugar and cinnamon could be made into a kind of cookie.
Coenraad Johannes van Houten (1801-1887), a Dutch chemist, came up with the idea of treating cocoa with alkaline salts to remove the bitter flavor inherent in the beans. It also made cocoa powder more water soluble. The resulting product is still referred to as “Dutch process” chocolate. His father, Casparus van Houten had earlier come up with a method of pressing the fat from roasted cacao beans to create cocoa powder. This made the creation of chocolate drinks much easier, but it also then made it possible, when linked with Coenraad Johannes van Houten’s invention, to combine the chocolate with sugar and then remix it with cocoa butter to create solid chocolate: the sort that is familiar to us today for our chocolate bars and other chocolate candies.
Thus, the first chocolate bar was finally created in 1847 by the English chocolate maker J.S. Fry & Sons. Milk chocolate was invented in Switzerland by Daniel Peter in 1875.
Milton Hershey completed an apprenticeship to a confectioner in 1876. He started a candy shop in Philadelphia. It failed within six years. Then he tried making candy in New York. That didn’t work out either. Finally he founded the Lancaster Caramel Company and by 1900 he had sold the company for a million dollars In 1903 he began building a chocolate plant in what was then called Derry Church, Pennsylvania. Later, the town adopted Hershey’s last name. In 1907 Milton Hershey introduced a new candy, still popular today: a small, flat-bottomed conical bit of chocolate that he called “Hershey’s Kisses.” In 2007, the U.S. Postal Service issued a postage stamp to mark its one hundredth anniversary.
Today, more than three million metric tons of cocoa is produced each year. The primary cocoa producing countries are Cote d’Ivorie, Ghana, Indonesia, Nigeria, Brazil, Cambodia and Ecuador. Although the cocoa tree is native to the Americas, more than two thirds of the world’s cocoa production today comes from Africa.
The cocoa tree grows fifteen to twenty-six feet tall. It begins to bear fruit, called pods, at about four or five years of age. Each tree will produce about twenty pods a season, each pod weighing about a pound. The pods are six to twelve inches long and three to four inches wide. They turn yellow or orange as they ripen; the pods are full of a white pulp in which are embedded twenty to sixty seeds or beans.
The harvesting process is labor intensive; it has not been mechanized. When the pods ripen, they are cut from the trunks and branches of the cocoa tree with a curved knife. The pods are then whacked open with a machete and the pulp and cocoa seeds are removed and the rind is tossed out. The pulp and the seeds are then piled up in heaps for several days, during which time the pulp liquefies and trickles away; if this is not allowed to happen, or if this process is interrupted, the beans are left bitter and unusable. Once the liquefying process—called “sweating”— is over, the beans are easily gathered and spread out to dry, usually in the sun. They are raked constantly, then people with bare feet shuffle the beans about. Finally, they are sprinkled with red clay and water to give them a polish and to protect them from molds during their shipment to factories in the United States or Europe where they are processed into all the chocolate products we now take for granted.
It takes between 150 and 300 beans—five pods worth—to make a pound of chocolate. Therefore, each cocoa tree produces, on average, about four pounds of chocolate.