Posted in Kafevend Blog
As promised, today sees the beginning of a short series on cocoa, which is always there for us when tea and coffee just won't cut it. Let's begin by answering a simple question: where on earth does it come from?
Theobroma cacao, the food of the gods, is typically believed to have originated in the lands around the Orinoco basins and the northern tip of the Andes mountain range at the northern edge of South America. The contents of cacao, or cocoa, pods have been used to make drinks since three and and half thousand years ago in the area now known as Honduras in Central America. At first the sweet white pulp within the pods was used to create alcohol, though no doubt it didn't take long for humans to cotton on to the worth of using the beans they shared the pod with.
Even three thousand years later in the time of the Aztec empire, cocoa was still going strong. It even served as a currency in the region, as the Aztecs demanded that their neighbours deliver cocoa beans to their cities as a tax. The drink made using the beans was reserved for the elite; the king, priests and warriors, as you would expect given its incredible value. When the Spanish arrived in the 16th century they witnessed the Aztec king at the time, Moctezuma II, consuming large amounts of this bitter brew from golden cups.
Cocoa drinks back then were a far cry to what we enjoy today. Served cold, the ground beans were mixed with water and chilli before being poured back and forth between vessels to work up a froth. The Spanish pallette, accustomed to sugar which had begun to be mass produced in mills during the 16th century, decided to change the recipe when they took it back to Europe. By adding sugar and spices like cinnamon as well as heating the drink, they created something that quickly took hold amongst the Spanish court. For almost a hundred years they kept this wonderful new exotic bean a secret.
As news of cocoa finally spread amongst the other European countries it was received in a similarly positive way- at least, for those with the cash to afford this new luxury. At some point someone cottoned on to using milk instead of water, which was a welcome change, but it was the Dutchman Casparus van Houten Sr. who made a real mark on the drink in 1826. The bit of the bean we use, known as the nib, contains a mixture of fat and solids. Casparus came up with a simple solution for separating the two by using a hydraulic press. The fat- also known as cocoa butter- was squeezed out, leaving behind a cake that could be broken up into the fine powder akin to the stuff you use to make your hot chocolate today.
We hope you've enjoyed this condensed history of one of our favourite drinks, and that you'll join us again next week as we dive in to the nitty gritty of how all those cocoa beans get turned into your favourite sweet treats.