When chocolate was first introduced to Europeans in the 1500s, they maintained a similar perception of it as Mesoamerican societies did long before them — a “food for the gods.” But for the Europeans, chocolate belonged to the closest category they had to the gods: the elites. Pictured below is an engraving of men at a chocolate house, which were lively, oftentimes raucous hubs designed for elite men to converse while consuming chocolate.
Dressed in opulent garb and engaging in animated discussion, it is evident that these are privileged members of society. In stark contrast, standing to the side is a maid — presumably in charge of serving the chocolate — whose demeanor and expression show that leisurely enjoyment of chocolate was not made for everyone. However, this notion of chocolate as a delicacy for the elite did not remain static. Today, people living in the US can walk into any corner store or supermarket and find a variety of chocolate products sold at reasonable prices. This transition from a delicacy for elite Europeans to the everyday snack that we recognize it as today was propelled by several intertwining factors. The realization that chocolate did not have true medicinal properties made it acceptable to consume chocolate unsparingly. Once this norm had been established, the creation of more efficient modes of production removed slow, inefficient labor from the chocolate production process, thereby extending the availability of the product to an even larger audience. Ultimately, these factors that drove chocolate from the hands of the elite to everyday were associated with the desire to profit from the production and selling of chocolate.
Elite Europeans initially perceived chocolate not as a readily consumed treat, but rather as a supplement with medicinal properties. This was a notable departure from the spiritual properties of chocolate that Mesoamerican societies originally believed it to have. As Coe and Coe described in The True History of Chocolate, “for the invaders, [chocolate] was a drug, a medicine, in the humoral system to which they all adhered” (Coe and Coe 126). This system, which was the extent of European medical knowledge at the time, was based on 4 “humors,” in which “good health [was] defined by the balance and mixture of the humors, whilst their imbalance and separation [were] the cause of disease” (Jouanna 335). One example of how chocolate’s purported medicinal properties functioned within the humoral system can be observed in Italy. The Roman physician Paolo Zacchia described chocolate as a new medicine that could aid the digestive process, but it should be consumed with caution for fear of exposing the body to excessive amounts of the “hot” humor (Coe and Coe 139). This instruction clearly suggests a conservative, strictly medicinal expectation for the consumption of chocolate.
Yet, the leisurely consumption of chocolate was not unheard of. Francesco Redi, a scientist and physician for Cosimo III de Medici, describes his heavily-guarded recipe for jasmine chocolate, which included additional aromatic flavors such as citrus, musk, cinnamon, and vanilla — indicating that chocolate wasn’t solely reserved for healing the body, but it could also bring pleasure to the body (Coe and Coe 145). Redi’s refusal to share this recipe with others is an example of the elitism associated with chocolate in Europe. Despite this, the recipe also demonstrated a shift of the perception of chocolate to non-medicinal and suitable for everyday, unrestricted consumption. It was only a matter of time before replications were attempted and the more widespread consumption of chocolate commenced, therefore paving the way for chocolate to be consumed at much higher rates and become a more profitable commodity.
Early modes of chocolate preparation employed by Europeans involved intricate, hand-operated tools. However, these were eventually overcome by the techniques developed during the Industrial Revolution, which streamlined the production process and turned it into an efficient endeavor, albeit at the cost of sacrificing the artisanship that had been an integral part of chocolate consumption for much of its history. One example of this early method of chocolate processing was the French chocolatière, or the chocolate pot, pictured below.
This pot borrowed elements from the Spanish molinillo. In fact, the handle on the side of the pot served the same purpose as the molinillo: to foam up the chocolate (Coe and Coe 157). Complete with a lid, these pots were usually constructed out of silver or gold in order to meet the exquisite tastes of the elites that these pots were intended for (Coe and Coe 157). However, this method of chocolate production by hand was not appropriate for quick, widespread consumption. The advent of the Industrial Revolution brought a shift from producing by hand to manufacturing with machinery, and chocolate production was no exception to this. One chocolate manufacturing development that rose to prominence during the Industrial Revolution was the conche machine developed by Rudolphe Lindt in the latter half of the 19th century, pictured below.
This machine rolls the cocoa solids around with granite rollers for a duration of about 72 hours, which is sufficient to break down the small particles and allow the chocolate to adopt a smoother texture — much more than the Spanish metates or French chocolate pots could ever accomplish (Cidell and Alberts 1002). The conche was an important development not only because it gave chocolate a universally appealing texture that could be enjoyed by everyone regardless of social status, but it also was conducive to outputting this smooth chocolate in a time-efficient manner that required less manual labor, which made the final product more affordable for non-elites.
These advancements that were made during the Industrial Revolution resulted in a less costly and easier production process, which allowed chocolate to become a more widespread staple for those who could not previously obtain it. Due to this heightened degree of accessibility to chocolate, entrepreneurs realized that it was a commodity that should be commercialized and marketed to the masses, rather than just remain a delicacy among the elites. Consequently, to maximize this new profitability associated with chocolate, new techniques, such as tempering, the process of raising and then lowering the temperature to prevent unwanted crystallization and irregularity in the chocolate (Coe and Coe 248), were continuously developed. This would further expand this level of accessibility of chocolate — both to the tastes and budgets of average people — to the degree that we can observe it today.
Chocolate’s journey from the reserves of the elite to its current commonplace consumption began with an understanding that its supposed medicinal properties were false, which made it acceptable to consume without fear of overdosing. But this alone was not sufficient to spread the consumption of chocolate to non-elites; it merely normalized the notion of everyday, nonmedicinal consumption. The industrialization of the chocolate production process is the corresponding factor that gave the final push of chocolate into the hands of the everyman. Although it was accompanied by a desire for profit by companies who wanted to capitalize on the new technologies discovered in the Industrial Revolution, there still arose a slightly more equitable distribution of who got to enjoy the rich, decadent flavors of chocolate.
Cidell, Julie L. and Alberts, Heike C. “Constructing quality: The multinational histories of chocolate.” Geoforum, vol. 37, 2006, pp. 999-1007.
Coe, Sophie D. and Coe, Michael D. The True History of Chocolate. 3rd Edition, London, Thames & Hudson, 2013.
Jouanna, Jacques. Greek Medicine from Hippocrates to Galen: Selected Papers. Translated by Neil Allies, Leiden, Brill Publishers, 2012.