Chocolate: A short but sweet history | Episode 3 | BBC Ideas


Chocolate… food of the gods! That’s the Greek meaning
of Theobroma cacao, the name of the tree
that provides it. For a plant which is notoriously
difficult to cultivate, its takeover of global tastes
is decidedly impressive. Although not sold in Britain
until the 1650s, its history goes back
about 2,500 years before that, when it was almost certainly
first domesticated in Central and South America. Chocolate was an important part of early Central
and South American culture. The classic Mayans and their
successors, including the Aztecs, consumed chocolate,
usually as a drink, with water and perhaps chilli,
or thickened with maize. They also used the beans as currency, as well as using them in ceremonies
from baptism to burial. It was a rich person’s beverage, imbued with health
and spiritual properties, and inevitably when
the Spanish invaded and colonised the areas
where it was found, they adopted it for their own use. At first, it was slow to spread. When one Spanish ship
transporting the beans was captured by the British
in the 16th Century, they apparently
threw the cargo overboard, thinking it was some form of dung. However, as the Spanish, and then
the French, and then the Italians, adapted the drink
for their own tastes, they replaced the water with milk,
and added sugar, and also started drinking it hot. By the time the British cottoned on,
it was a rich, thick concoction, both delicious and pleasingly exotic. It was also healthy – 17th Century medicine
wasn’t always certain what the new foods from the Americas
would do to a Western disposition, but chocolate mainly
got a resolute thumbs up. Taken correctly, it was said
to “restore natural heat, generate pure blood,
enliven the heart, and conserve the natural faculties.” It was also claimed
to be an aphrodisiac, and one author wrote, “Twill make
old women young and fresh, create new motions of the flesh, and cause them to long
for you know what, if they but taste of chocolate.” The Marquis de Sade
was said to be addicted to it, using it to fuel ferocious orgies. No wonder it was popular! At this time, chocolate was a drink. But in the early 19th Century, manufacturers worked out
how to remove much of the fat – called cocoa butter – which could then
be added back carefully, to improve the texture, making
it edible – though still very bitter. The defatted chocolate
became cocoa powder, which allowed the poor
access to their own version of the food of the gods. It was also used for cooking, though we had to wait a few
more decades for chocolate cake. It wasn’t until the second half
of the 19th Century that developments in milk processing, a sharp reduction
in the price of sugar, and fierce competition between
confectionery companies resulted in the first
really popular eating chocolate – milk chocolate. Sales exploded, and chocolate quickly
came to mean the stuff you ate, not the stuff you drank. Less than 50 years later, chocoholics could choose
from an ever-increasing range of bars, boxes and novelty shapes. Today chocolate is polarised – from cheap, milky, sugary stuff,
to high-end black bars of joy. The former, we’re told,
high in sugar and fat, is leading to an obese nation, but the latter, it’s hinted,
may actually be beneficial. Early studies suggest small doses
of very dark chocolate, rich in anti-oxidants,
theobromine and caffeine may make us happier,
healthier and less stressed. Perhaps those 17th Century chocolate
lovers were right after all. Thanks for watching. Don’t forget to subscribe and click the bell to receive notifications for new videos. See you again soon!

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