Oh la la…Chocolat!

Our enduring love affair with chocolate has spanned centuries and continents. We turn to the sweet stuff for comfort, celebration, joy or just pure indulgence, but where did it originate from, and what has contributed to its lasting appeal?

Chocolate in its rudest form is rumoured to have been discovered around 2,000 years ago, with historians placing its origins back to pre-modern Latin America. Mayans and Aztecs were the first civilisations to realise the value of cacao beans, which they used as currency for trading goods. They also believed that these beans were a gift from the Gods and would use them for sacred ceremonies, including births, marriages and deaths. The Mayans would dry and grind the beans before mixing them with water and sometimes chilli to produce a bitter drink, known by the Aztec work ‘xocolatl’, which isn’t entirely dissimilar to the modern day ‘chocolate’. 

It is believed that this basic form of drinking chocolate didn’t make its first appearance in Europe until explorers travelled to the Americas. During the 16th century, a Spaniard named Hernán Cortés is alleged to have come across the spicy drink and brought it back with him. It was quickly identified that by mixing the drink with honey, vanilla or cane sugar it became much more palatable and its popularity spread throughout Spain. 

By the 17th Century, chocolate had established itself in Europe as a fashionable tipple, revered for its nutritious, medicinal and, rumoured, aphrodisiac qualities. However, it remained the reserve of the upper-classes until the invention of mass production. It wasn’t until 1828 that a Dutchman began to experiment with chocolate, removing half the fat from the liquor to produce a fine powder, that was latterly known as ‘Dutch cocoa’. This powder was much more palatable and could be easily mixed with water. More importantly, it could be mass-produced, making it accessible to all. Joseph Fry is credited with producing the first chocolate bar in 1847, followed by more household names, including Cadbury and Nestlé, in the mid-19th Century. 

Spot the difference 

Most of us are familiar with the three main types of chocolate; milk chocolate, dark chocolate and white chocolate. Cocoa solids, cocoa butter, sugar and milk are the key components that contribute to this holy trinity of varieties and blending these ingredients in varying quantities produces different results. 

Milk chocolate: milk chocolate is the only variety to contain all four ingredients, including at least 12% milk. Higher quality milk chocolate can contain as much as 30-40% cocoa and, due to the addition of milk, this variety is often softer in texture and melts more easily. 

Dark chocolate: dark chocolate comprises the same ingredients as milk chocolate although, as the name suggests, it doesn’t contain milk. A key differentiator between dark chocolate varieties is the cocoa solids; the higher the percentage, the more bitter the chocolate. 

White chocolate: white chocolate doesn’t contain any cocoa solids at all, so some argue that it doesn’t constitute a chocolate. Comprising cocoa butter and milk, cream or milk solids, the absence of cocoa solids lends itself to a much sweeter variety. 

Joseph Fry is credited with producing the first chocolate bar in 1847, followed by more household names, including Cadbury and Nestle, in the mid-19th Century. 

  • The Ivory Coast and Ghana are the two largest producers of cocoa, accounting for more than 50 per cent of the world’s cocoa. 
  • Chocolate was traditionally thought to boost feelings of love and euphoria, which is why men tend to give it to women on a first date. 
  • The chocolate industry is worth approximately $110 billion per year. 
  • It’s estimated that we Brits eat an average 11kg of chocolate per person every year. 
  • It takes around five years for cocoa trees to produce pods. 

Enjoying a healthy relationship with chocolate

We’re all aware of the tough reputation that chocolate gets, but is it fair? While it’s true that the sugar and fat in chocolate, when consumed in excess, can lead to weight gain, a healthy relationship with the chocolate can actually deliver a wealth of benefits. 

When consumed in moderate quantities, dark chocolate, in particular, has been heralded for its antioxidants, particularly flavanol, which can help to fight inflammation and prevent cell damage.