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Baptized as Theobroma (“food of the gods” in Greek) cacao by Linnaeus in the 18th century, the cocoa bean was a favorite of the American people long before the arrival of the Europeans. In Mayan language it was called ka’kaw, a term associated with fire (kakh), which they said was hidden in its kernels.

The Mayan tradition claimed that the god Kukulkan (“Feathered Serpent”) had given cocoa directly to his people after the creation of the human species. They even had a cacao god, Ek Chuah, and celebrated an annual festival in its honor. The Aztecs would not be left behind and claimed that Quetzalcoatl (their “Feathered Serpent”) came down from heaven to deliver the wonderful plant.

The most important culinary use of cocoa was the preparation of a refreshing and stimulating drink obtained by grinding the kernels of the fruit and dissolving it in water. The Mayans called it chocolhaa — bitter water — and the Aztecs, xocolatl, from which the word chocolate derives.

It was sweetened with different types of honey, agave syrup, and flavored with vanilla. They drank it alone or with ground corn, or added herbs, fruits, flowers, hot pepper or achiote to dye it red.

When prepared hot or warm it was called “cooked cocoa” and was coveted as an exquisite treat; when cold, it was passed from hand to hand at community meetings.

Like the maize drink, the cocoa drink was associated with special occasions (funeral rites, war rituals or planting and harvesting). Among the Aztecs, only nobles who excelled in war were entitled to consume the drink without special permission. Anyone who drank it without permission could be punished; and for this reason it was called yollotlieztlic, which in Nahuatl means “the cost of blood and heart.”

Nonetheless, recent archaeological and historical studies confirm its frequent use, not only among the highest ranks. Common people, who planted it, also consumed it in their daily lives. But this does not negate the fact that it was a high-status product, as are today’s most sophisticated confections made with cocoa, which, when mixed with milk, sugar and other ingredients, creates the product known as chocolate.

By the end of the 16th century, cocoa shipments were crossing the Atlantic to Spain, and its consumption would soon conquer the Europeans, especially when they began sweetening it with cane sugar.

Traces of the product in the archeological site of Colha, Belize, showed Mayans in the Preclassic Era (600 B.C. to A.D. 200) consumed dishes with cocoa. Chemical analysis proved that at the time it was mixed with honey, corn and chili pepper. Moreover, in Veracruz, Mexico, new findings show the consumption of cocoa as a beverage centuries before the site in Belize (1900 to 900 B.C.).

Fashion Comes Back

The trend of using dark chocolate in the modern diet — which contains more cocoa and less sugar — is a fashion rooted in centuries past: ancient Mayan people prescribed it as a stimulant for their warriors and claimed it provided important health benefits. We now know that its effect is due to polyphenols and antioxidants, and that the darker, the better. It is purer and contains a higher concentration of cocoa.

But don’t celebrate too quickly: devouring a box of delicious chocolates will not improve your health. But it’s possible that consuming chocolates in moderation can improve your mood greatly, due to the euphoria-producing effects of phenylethylamine. And if you want to get the most out of its physical benefits, more pure and organic is better. But the Mayans and Aztecs already knew this.

Main Varieties

The Criollo or creole cocoa is a variety known for its excellent quality. It’s reserved for the manufacturing of fine chocolates. (In Venezuela it is grown under the name Ocumare.)

The Forastero or peasant variety, originally from the Upper Amazon, is the most commonly cultivated, especially in Africa.

Then there are hybrid varieties, among which the Trinitario or trinitarian cocoa stands out. This variety is a cross between the Criollo, which gives it its strength, and the Forastero, which gives it its delicate flavor.

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An Intercontinental Journey

From the time it crossed the Atlantic in Spanish ships, the cocoa bean began to travel through several continents, flourishing in countries with tropical climates. Of these, the most prominent are Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Ghana and Cameroon in Africa, Malaysia in Asia and Papua New Guinea in Oceania. And in Latin America, it took hold in places like Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Dominican Republic, Mexico, Belize, Costa Rica and Venezuela.

Today, 10 countries produce 90 percent of the global harvest, and Africa reigns supreme in quantity of production. Despite this, there are Latin American countries harvesting very high-quality cocoa, mainly in their cultivation of organic crops.

Cocoa is produced in developing countries, but its processing into chocolate is done in industrialized countries, which are also the largest consumers.