Highlights From the History of Chocolate

February 14, 2014 Updated: October 8, 2018

Every year, chocolate gets plenty of attention when Valentine’s Day comes around, but it has an ancient and storied history. Its use varied—from energy-giving drink, to remedy for ills, to aphrodisiac.

Culinary historian Francine Segan highlighted noteworthy moments in chocolate history at a recent talk. 

Aztec and Mayan civilizations: Aztecs and Mayans are known to have drunk a bitter cacao drink. Chocolate was mostly consumed as a drink for most of its documented history.

1502: Christopher Columbus carries cocoa beans he finds near present-day Honduras back to Spain, presents them to Queen Isabella, and they go straight into a museum. In his diary, Columbus hints that chocolate would be improved with the addition of sugar.

1528: Hernán Cortés, spending time with Montezuma, observes his seemingly boundless energy and chocolate drinking habit—40 goblets a day. Trying it himself, he writes to King Charles about its energy and focus-giving qualities. “It was because it was the first time that he had caffeine,” said Segan. “Coffee and tea were not yet introduced to the Old World.”

Mid to late 1500s: With the addition of sugar, chocolate becomes sweet, but isn’t for the masses; only the wealthy can afford it.[/color]

1600s: Chocolate travels from Spain to Italy, where it is seen in a whole new light: as a spice. “The Italians love to fool around,” according to Segan, “They looked at the cocoa beans and said, ‘Cocoa beans are a spice; they’re seeds like cumin, coriander,’” prompting their use in cooking, quite some time before Mexico’s mole sauces.

Casanova (1725–1798) praises chocolate’s aphrodisiac values, recommending oysters, sparkling wine, to seduce ladies, but chocolate above all for what he believed were its aphrodisiac properties.

1865: Gianduja, chocolate mixed with hazelnut paste, is created in Piedmont, Italy.

1875: Daniel Peter creates milk chocolate, with condensed milk produced by his neighbor and dairy farmer Henri Nestlé. 

1879: Rodolphe Lindt invents conching, a way to make chocolate less grainy tasting and smoother through heating and rolling. Though many prefer this finer texture, in Sicily, the grainy texture is preferred and still produced.

1930s: Nestlé creates white chocolate, now that cocoa butter can be squeezed from the cocoa solids.

The English, who were used to the idea of hot drinks, had no problem with chocolate as a rich drink, with milk, eggs, and cream. Called Indian nectar by Henry Stubbe in a 1662 treatise, the drink was praised for its universal curing properties—for any and all ailments.