Early Chocolate Manufacture

Appears in

Chocolate: The Food of the Gods


By Chantal Coady

Published 1993

The first detailed account of the preparation of the drink comes from the Italian merchant seaman Benzoni in 1540. On his travels in the New World, he came across Native Americans preparing cocoa. He was intrigued by the sight of the drink, but was not tempted to try it until his supply of wine had been used up. He watched them drying the cocoa beans, roasting them in earthen pans over a fire, and grinding them between the stones which they also used to grind flour for their bread. They put the resulting paste in cups of calabash, a kind of gourd, and mixed it with water. They then used a special wooden stick, called a molinillo, to beat the mixture. Maize was added as a primitive emulsifier, to help incorporate the cocoa butter. (It was not until the nineteenth century that a Dutch chemist called Van Houten finally worked out how to extract the cocoa butter, to produce the dry cocoa powder which we know today.) Benzoni found the drink bitter, yet satisfying: refreshing without being intoxicating. He also notes its sustaining properties, and the fact that the Native Americans who drank it regularly had thought him foolish to have been so disdainful at first of their nourishing drink.

Thomas Gage also details the usage of chocolate, and its preparation into blocks in the 16th and early 17th Centuries. The paste would be formed into square or round shapes, which were carried in boxes. This proved to be a convenient form to keep it in before the final preparation into a drink, and must be the first method of manufacture of cocoa. It was drunk widely in Mexico, and regarded as the best of drinks, though its value as money must have limited the amount consumed by the poor.
In the mid-seventeenth century the basic Mexican recipe adopted throughout Europe for the preparation of drinking chocolate was cocoa beans, sugar, cinnamon, red pepper, cloves, logwood (similar to fennel) and aniseed. Other ingredients might also be added. Maize was commonly used, while some people put in almonds and orange-flower water.
The use of maize can already be seen as a double-edged sword: it was helpful in absorbing surplus cocoa butter, but was soon being used excessively to adulterate the drink and thus increase profits. Spaniards sometimes added powdered roses of Alexandria. Antonio Colmenero, a Spanish physician, mentions the first chocolate bars in 1631:

Sometimes they make tablets of the sugar and chocolate together. . . and they are sold in the shops, and are confected and eaten together like other sweetmeats.

These bars would have been in a very crude form; the cocoa would have been roasted and ground, and then, while still warm, shaped into blocks or sticks. These artisan-produced lumps of chocolate can still be found in Mexico and the Caribbean today. The usual way to make a drink, however, was by dissolving the chocolate paste in water, then adding more water with sugar and boiling it, and finally whipping it with a molinillo. The resulting oily scum or froth was much appreciated, but not by all. In 1640 the English herbalist John Parkinson referred to chocolate as ‘a wash fitter for hogs’.

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