Ok, so we all know and love chocolate. We’ve been brought up on the stuff and it’s the thing we turn to for a little hit of bliss. But chocolate is way more complex and interesting than just a sweet treat; it’s part of a colourful – and sometimes bizarre – history that to this day remains largely unknown.
From religious ceremonies to medicine and even commerce, cacao (the main ingredient in chocolate) has been making human history for over 3,000 years! Join us on a quick tour of cacao and chocolate that stretches back to the beginning of recorded history…
Back in the ‘Old World’ (that’s about 5,000 years ago to you and me), in what is now Central and South America, there existed two ancient civilizations: the Olmecs and the Mayans. Nobody’s quite sure which first discovered cacao. But we can only imagine how fascinating the crazy-looking tree must have appeared in the middle of the jungle with its multi-coloured cacao pods sprouting right out from the trunk.
Whatever they thought about it, we do know that cacao went on to become extremely important to both civilizations, and to the future rest of the world…
In the Mayan culture cacao was considered a divine substance delivered to the people by the gods, and was so integral to their culture that cacao even forms a part of the story of their creation.1 The story goes that after the god ‘Xmucane’ created people from maize, the demigod ‘Quetzalcoatl’ (also known as the Plumed Serpent) discovered cacao on a mythical mountain and gifted the plant to the people.
The Mayans prized cacao so highly that they even had a god of cacao, Ek Chuah, whom they celebrated in a yearly festival every April.
A far cry from our sweet confections, the Mayans preferred their chocolate as a cold, frothy drink mixed with water, corn and spices.2 As cacao was enshrined with a sacred quality it was consumed regularly only by the nobles of the day, and for the common folk, occasionally at religious ceremonies such as marriages. So valuable was cacao to the Mayans that they even used it as currency. Cacao beans were the main form of payment for day-to-day transactions and the beans could even be used to pay off their taxes! If only that still worked today.
Much later in time (roughly 800 years ago), when the Aztecs arrived in the central valley of Mexico they adopted cacao as both a food and medicine.1 They used cacao to treat a wide range of ailments, including controlling fever, to treat stomach and intestinal complaints, and to fortify the faint-hearted. We now know, thanks to current research, that cacao contains a range of compounds and nutrients beneficial to your health.3
As a food gifted from the gods, consumed by kings, revered by the spiritual and prescribed by healers, cacao has been on a long journey through the ages and we’re still unlocking the secrets of this humble plant.
So next time you’re enjoying an Ombar, have a think about how you’re eating something that’s been sacred for thousands of years. It’s certainly not hard to taste why!
1) Dillinger, T., Barriga, P., Escarcega, S., Jimenez, M., Lowe, D. and Grivetti, L. (2000). Food of the Gods: Cure for Humanity? A Cultural History of the Medicinal and Ritual Use of Chocolate. The Journal of Nutrition, 130(8).
2) McNeil, C., Chase, D. and Chase, A. (2006). Chocolate in Mesoamerica. Florida.
3) Barns, C. (2017). Cacao: the mineral marvel. [online] Ombar. Available at: https://www.ombar.co.uk/blogs/news/cacao-the-mineral-marvel [Accessed 24 Nov. 2017].