The cacao tree originated in the Amazon and Orinoco basins 4000 years ago. They started to be grown by the Olmecs and the Maya people who prepared the first hot chocolate from their fruits and called it “xocolatl” (“bitter water“). It was a very bitter and foamy drink consisting of ground cocoa beans, chilli, jasmine and vanilla. Drinking hot chocolate was a part of various rituals and it was considered the drink of gods. It was also appreciated for its aphrodisiac effects and the last emperor of the Aztecs, Moctezuma, was able to consume more than 40 portions of this bitter drink a day and regarded it as a source of the spiritual energy.
Cocoa beans weren’t always used only as a food. They used to be also a barter currency in Mesoamerica. From the 7th to 16th century you could buy a big tomato for 1 cocoa bean, a piece of fish for 3 beans, a hare for 10 beans and a turkey or a slave, they were of the same value at that time, for 100 beans.
Christophe Columbus was the first to bring cocoa beans to Europe, however nobody paid attention to them as they resembled Spanish almonds and tasted bitter. Europeans weren’t interested at all. Cocoa beans became popular on the old continent only when they were introduced together with the instruments to make hot chocolate by Hernán Cortéz. Spanish monks enhanced the traditional recipe with honey, which made this Aztec drink very tasty and thus popular among European people. Up to the second half of the 17th century Spain had a monopoly on making hot chocolate. After the wedding of Spanish Infanta Anne of Austria and Louis XIII of France chocolate was spread into France and not long afterward also into other parts of Europe. Hot chocolate was a highly regarded drink and the fact that it was Maria Theresa’s wedding gift for Louis XIV of France is just a proof of its great value.