Posted in Kafevend Blog

Having looked at how cacao was first used in Central America last week, today's blog looks at how it made its way to Europe.

Whilst there is some debate as to whether it really was Hernán Cortés who introduced cacao beans to Europe, he is generally attributed the honour. He wasn't the first European to discover them however. Whilst taking notes during the inspection of a Mayan vessel in 1502, Christopher Columbus found large amounts of what he referred to as "almonds" on the boat. What he had actually found were cacao beans. It is perhaps not surprising that he thought nothing of them, as it was Cortés and his troops who learnt how they were used by the Aztecs, and shared the knowledge back at home in Spain.

In 1529 when Cortés returned to Spain with riches from the New World, cacao beans were one of the items he presented to the Royal Court. Unlike the Aztecs and other Mesoamerican peoples, the Spanish were able to create a drink more in line with what we consider to be hot chocolate today, thanks to sugar cane. By heating the drink along with adding sugar and spices such as cinnamon, the Spanish created a drink that remains a staple in their diet to this day. A typical breakfast is churros and chocolate: long star cross-sectioned doughnuts with a thick hot chocolate. Just the thing to perk you up and keep you going until lunchtime!

For much of the 16th century, Spain managed to keep their discovery of cacao a secret. The drink was only really enjoyed by the upper class of society, as the drink relied on expensive imports of cacao and sugar cane- this rarity perhaps helped to keep it hidden. By the turn of the 16th and 17th centuries word began to get out to other European countries however. Workers in a Spanish cacao processing plant built in 1580 were rumoured to have put the word out abroad. The Italian traveller Francesco Carletti who visited the New World reported back to his country how the drink was made. In more official channels, cacao was revealed to France when Anne of Austria, the daughter of King Philip III of Spain, married King Louis XIII of France. Part of her wedding gift to him was chocolate and the knowledge of how to make the drink soon spread throughout the French court.

Along with the Netherlands and Germany, England soon found out about cacao as it spread over Europe. Demand for the drink was higher than ever, and many European countries set out to establish cacao plantations in their colonies around the world. Cacao took hold in England in the 1650s, when the Royal Court of King Charles II made drinking chocolate fashionable. By 1657, the first chocolate house was opened in London by a Frenchman in Bishopgate Street. Chocolate houses popped up throughout the capital, keeping the English gentry swimming in cacao. Interestingly, whilst coffee houses and tea rooms remain prevalent in our towns and cities, chocolate houses seem to have fallen by the wayside. Wouldn't it be great if some entrepreneurial spirit brought them back?

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