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A Brief History of Chocolate: From the Aztecs to Today

March 22nd, 2024

The History of Chocolate

Have you ever wondered where chocolate comes from? How it is made? What ingredients are used? The history of chocolate is a long, complicated one, intertwined with the history of Spanish colonialism in the Americas.

In this blog post, we will take a closer look at the history of chocolate and how it has evolved over the centuries. We will also explore some of the key milestones and innovations that have shaped the chocolate industry, as well as the cultural and economic impact of this delicious food. So grab a bar of your favorite chocolate and join us on a journey through the rich history of this beloved treat.

An illustrated old map of the world history of chocolate History of chocolate map

The origins of chocolate in Mesoamerica

So how did chocolate start as a bean growing on the cocoa plants in South America to a luxury chocolatier in London?

The history of chocolate dates back to the ancient Mesoamerican civilizations, where it was consumed as a bitter beverage and used in religious ceremonies.

This bitter cocoa beverage was made by mixing ground cocoa beans with water and spices – such as chilli and vanilla. It was often served cold and frothy, and was enjoyed by both the elite and common people.

Mayan Lord featured with a frothy cacao drink (Chocolatl)

The Mayans and Aztecs believed that chocolate had medicinal and spiritual properties, and it was often used in religious ceremonies and as a tribute to the gods. In the legends of the Aztecs, the cocoa tree was brought down from the mountains by the God of sun, wind and air, the feathered serpent Quetzalcoatl.

Quetzalcoatl as depicted in the Codex Telleriano-Remensis

The the cocoa tree was stolen by Quetzalcoatl from paradise where all the other gods lived and planted by him in Tula, Mexico.

Hence, it was believed that Quetzalcoatal taught humans, more specifically the Toltecs, how to use cocoa beans to make chocolate. Because of this, chocolate was often associated with Quetzalcoatl and other gods, becoming precious currency and part of religious iconography.

Melt’s Aztec Fire Chilli Chocolate Bar

It is said that the Toltecs where transformed into powerful and influential people as a result of the delicious and energising cocoa beverage!

The arrival of the Spanish and the introduction of sugar

The arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century marked a turning point in the history of chocolate. The Spanish conquistadors, led by Hernán Cortés, were the first Europeans to encounter chocolate, and they quickly became enamored with it.

When the Spanish conquistadors first encountered cocoa, they adapted the preparation methods to include sweetening and flavoring with spices like cinnamon, and served the beverage warm. On occasions cornmeal and hallucinogenic mushrooms were also added to the drink.

This differentiated the chocolate consumed by the Spanish from that consumed by the native Mesoamericans. This pattern can be seen in other foods consumed by both groups, but none achieved the global popularity and demand of chocolate.

Artistic depiction of Hernan De Cortez and Montezuma

Back in Spain the Spanish nobility and Catholic priests were quick to embrace the new and exciting beverage of chocolate. They used it to sustain themselves during religious fasts, and for nearly a century, Spain kept the secret of cacao beans to itself, restricting their processing to monks in monasteries.

The secret was so well-guarded that when English pirates boarded what they thought was a Spanish treasure ship in 1579, they mistook the cocoa beans for dried sheep’s droppings and burned the ship, not realizing the value of the cacao trove they were destroying.

Spanish Conquistadors ship history of cocoa

The rise of industrial chocolate production

It was not until the late 17th century, after the Spanish economy began to decline, and chocolate began to be imported to other parts of Europe, where it was initially only consumed by the wealthy. These cocoa drinks were considered a luxury at this time.

18th Century Drinking Chocolate

In some cases, chocolate was also consumed in solid form, in the form of a chocolate paste or cake. These were typically made by mixing cocoa paste with sugar and other ingredients, and then molding the mixture into a desired shape. Solid chocolate was less common than the beverage, and was often reserved for special occasions.

The development of steam-powered machinery in the early 1800s allowed cocoa beans to be roasted and ground more efficiently, making chocolate production faster and cheaper.

One of the key innovations in the industrial production of chocolate was the invention of the hydraulic press, which was patented in 1828 by Dutchman Coenraad Johannes van Houten. This machine allowed cocoa butter to be extracted from cocoa beans, leaving behind a dry cake that could be ground into a fine powder. This powder, known as cocoa, could then be mixed with sugar and other ingredients to produce chocolate.

The rise of industrial chocolate production led to a rapid expansion of the chocolate industry, with many new companies entering the market. The increased competition led to lower prices and greater availability of chocolate, making it accessible to a wider range of consumers. In addition, the development of new production techniques and flavors allowed for the creation of a wide variety of chocolate products, from simple bars to more complex confections.

Dark Chocolate Hazelnut Terrine

Chocolate’s Transformation into Delectable Gianduja

The next step in chocolate history – was combining chocolate and nuts. This was achieved through gianduja, the combination of hazelnuts and chocolate. The history of gianduja can be traced back to the early 19th century, when a chocolatier named Caffarel created the first gianduiotto, a solid chocolate confection made with gianduja.

Dark Chocolate Gianduja Terrine History of Chocolate Italy

As British Chocolate Company, we are also going to take credit for its invention. For the story goes that without Nelson, the famous British Admiral – we wouldn’t have Gianduja. We have to go back to 1806 when Nelson’s ships were blockading the Continent. Chocolate beans, imported from the Americas could not get to the Italian ports because of Nelson’s Naval blockade. The resourceful Piedmontese – looked around for a local product to mix with chocolate to increase their supply and to avoid bankruptcy. They hit on the brilliant and utterly delicious chocolate & hazelnut combination, which was subsequently named Gianduja.

The gianduiotto quickly became popular in Italy, and was especially favored in the Piedmont region. In the early 20th century, gianduja was used as a substitute for cocoa in Italy, due to a shortage caused by World War I. This led to the development of new gianduja-based confections, such as Nutella, which is still popular today. Gianduja remains a beloved part of Italian chocolate culture, and is enjoyed by chocolate lovers all over the world.

Melt’s Gianduja Chocolate Spread

The global popularity of chocolate today

The introduction of milk to chocolate was a significant development in the history of this delicious treat. In 1875, Swiss chocolatier Daniel Peter invented milk chocolate by mixing cocoa powder, cocoa butter, and condensed milk. This new type of chocolate was sweeter and creamier than the traditional dark chocolate, and it quickly gained popularity among consumers.

Daniel Peter (1836 –1919)

The introduction of milk chocolate had a major impact on the chocolate industry and the economy. The new recipe made chocolate more accessible to a wider audience, as it was less bitter and more palatable to people who were not accustomed to the taste of dark chocolate. This led to an increase in demand for chocolate, which in turn spurred the growth of the chocolate industry and created new job opportunities.

The development of milk chocolate also paved the way for the creation of a wide range of new chocolate products, including chocolate bars, chocolate-covered sweets, and chocolate-flavored desserts. This increased the variety of chocolate available to consumers and contributed to the continued growth of the industry.

Milk Chocolate Bar - History of Chocolate

Melt’s Milk Chocolate Bar

Today, chocolate is enjoyed all over the world and is a multibillion-dollar industry. It is used in a wide variety of products, including candy bars, ice cream, cookies, and many other desserts. Chocolate also continues to hold a special place in many cultures, and it is often associated with love, happiness, and celebration.


The power of cacao, and the beverage developed by the Mayan Empire over 4,000 years ago, is truly incredible. The Mayans found a use for the cacao bean that individuals like Christopher Columbus could not see. Despite changes throughout different empires and cultures, chocolate has retained the same principles from its origins. Today, chocolate as a beverage is enjoyed by people of all walks of life, and the Mayan Empire’s contribution to the development of chocolate has had a lasting impact on the world.

In conclusion, the history of chocolate is a fascinating story that spans thousands of years and several continents. From its humble beginnings as a bitter beverage consumed by the ancient Mesoamerican civilizations, chocolate has evolved into a beloved treat that is enjoyed by people all over the world. As we continue to explore and innovate in the chocolate industry, we can be sure that this delicious food will continue to play a central role in our lives and our cultures.

Chocolate Experiences in London

Experience the ancient power of chocolate in our Cacoa Ceremony, learn its history, how to make it and how to taste it in one of Melt Chocolate’s amazing chocolate experiences in London, booked through our website or via Virgin Experiences.

As recommended in The New York Times

There is so much more history and information to learn from our professional London chocolatiers, who will take you on a journey through time and flavours. Book now!

Cacoa Ceremony in a yurt in london notting hill with furs and gong




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