What We Know About the Earliest History of Chocolate (Smithsonian)

On a sunny morning in San Francisco’s Mission District, half a dozen men and women scoot around a tiny chocolate factory, wrapping bars, checking temperature settings, sorting beans. Cacao beans that have been fermented, dried, roasted, shelled, and ground tumble with sugar in a row of shiny metal mixers. After three days of gentle mixing, the buttery smooth results will be transferred to a tempering machine to shape the cacao’s natural fat molecules into stable crystal structures.

This is the home of Dandelion Chocolate, a small-batch chocolate maker founded in 2010 by two former tech entrepreneurs. The tools and flavors have changed, but the work of roasting and grinding fermented cacao beans, and mixing them with a few simple ingredients to create a divine food, is a practice that goes back to early Mesoamerican civilizations.

The Olmecs of southern Mexico were probably the first to ferment, roast, and grind cacao beans for drinks and gruels, possibly as early as 1500 B.C., said Hayes Lavis, a cultural arts curator for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. “There is no written history for the Olmecs,” he said, but pots and vessels uncovered from this ancient civilization show traces of the cacao chemical theobromine.

“When you think of chocolate, most people don’t think of Mesoamerica. They think of Belgian chocolate,” says Lavis. “There’s so much rich history that we’re just beginning to understand.

In their raw state, plucked from tangy-sweet, gummy white flesh lining a large pod shaped like a Nerf football, cacao seeds are bitter and unrecognizable as chocolate to a modern American palate. “How would you think to take the seed, harvest it, dry it, let it ferment, and roast it? It’s not something you would normally think to do,” Lavis said. Perhaps, one theory holds, someone was eating the fruit and spitting seeds into the fire, and the rich smell of them roasting inspired the thought that “maybe there’s something more we could do with this.”

The naturally bitter flavor of cacao came through at full strength in early Maya recipes. “This was before they had really good roasting techniques, before they had conching, which is a step that mellows out the flavors, before they started looking at genetics,” says Dandelion co-founder Todd Masonis.

“Rarely did they add any sweetener — once in a while honey, but mainly to try to ferment it,” says anthropologist Joel Palka, of the University of Illinois at Chicago. A variety of herbs were on hand, however, for seasoning cacao-based food and drink. “There were literally dozens of things that would be used to flavor it,” says Lavis, ranging from chili and vanilla to magnolia.

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