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Foods and Wines from Spain. Everything you should know about Spanish food. >> Chocolate
Foods From Spain History: Chocolate. From Mesoamerica To Modern Master Chocolatiers

Foods From Spain History: Chocolate. From Mesoamerica To Modern Master Chocolatiers

The fruits of the cacao plant, generally known as “pods”, and the seeds known as “beans”, are the raw material from which chocolate is made.

The cacao plant

Despite some disagreement in the past about whether the cacao plant (Theobroma cacao L.) came originally from Central or South America, experts now consider it proven that it originated some 4,000 years BC between the Orinoco and Amazon basins – the region where the greatest number of natural varieties of the species are to be found. From the upper Amazon basin it spread as far as present-day Mexico, although it is not known for certain whether this occurred naturally or as a result of human intervention.

The cacao plant is extremely delicate. It grows in very moist environments where average annual temperatures are high.

Furthermore, it requires a canopy of vegetation to protect it from direct sunlight and evaporation, which is why it tends to be grown alongside other, larger, species such as banana and bucare (Erythrina), which grow quickly and to a great height.

Cacao in the pre-Columbian cultures

Cacao in the pre-Columbian cultures

Evidence has been found of cacao having been grown in Honduras around 1100 BC, but the Olmecs were probably the first to cultivate it extensively, in the 9th century BC on the fluvial plains of Mesoamerica around the Gulf of Mexico.

Cacao immediately acquired great cultural and economic importance for the major Mesoamerican (Olmec, Toltec, Maya and Aztec) cultures. Apart from its dietary, medicinal, aesthetic (it was used as make-up) and ceremonial uses, cacao fruits (cocoa beans. Confusingly, the word cocoa is simply derived from cacao and as a general rule is used in English for the product or the cacao plant) were used as common currency throughout Mesoamerica.

It seems to have been the Maya who revolutionized and consolidated the different traditional uses for cacao in the pre-Columbian cultures of the region. The five classic drinks made with cacao, whose origin is attributed to the goddess Chiracan Xmucame are part of the Maya cultural heritage: Xocolatl (a fermented alcoholic drink known as ‘cacao wine’); Chorote (boiled cacao, sweetened with honey or piloncillo and thickened with corn flour); Chilatl (cacao dissolved in rain water and thickened with corn flour); Atextli (water with cacao aromatized with flowers or vanilla); and Cacahoatl (a mixture of cacao and 1.maize).

The word ‘cacao’ comes from the Maya ka’kaw, and the word ‘chocolate’ from xocoatl, which means 2. ‘foaming water’. This was probably the first drink that Hernán Cortés (1485-1547) was offered when he arrived in Mexico in 1519, and one that some Spaniards found unappetizing to say the least: “The main benefit of this cacao is a beverage that they make which they call chocolate, and in that land they hold it in the highest esteem, and some who do not take to it find it disgusting; for it has a foam on top and a tumult like feces, so that indeed much credit is needed to cope with”.

Spain’s discovery of cacao

There are various different accounts of how the fruit of the cacao first reached Spain. Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) might possibly have brought it among the samples amassed in the territory that is now Nicaragua in the course of his fourth voyage, from which he returned to Spain in 1504.

It is known for a fact that Hernán Cortés sampled some of the drinks made from cacao by the Maya and Aztecs with whom he came into contact on his arrival in the American continent in 1519. Indeed, Cortés himself may have taken some with him on his return to Spain in 1529, before undertaking the first expedition to find a Central American passage connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

One of the Cistercian monks on Cortés’ expedition, Fray Aguilar (1489-1531) (4.Luis Monreal Tejada), seems to have been responsible for taking the first cacao to the abbot of Piedra monastery (in Zaragoza), where chocolate was made for the first time in Spain – and, indeed, Europe - and where top quality chocolate is still made to this day. The monks kept the method of making it a closely guarded secret. Curiously, many members of the Spanish Church drank a lot of chocolate since they did not count it as a fast-breaking food (though there were heated ecclesiastical arguments on this point). All the indications seem to be that chocolate was being made in Spain before 1530, during the reign of Charles I (1500-1558). The fruit that the Aztecs looked upon as ‘the food of the gods’ (which is what Theobroma - the name that Linnaeus (1707-1778), the naturalist, gave the plant – means) was dubbed amígdala pecuniara (money almond) by the Spanish because its almond-shaped seeds were used as currency by the Native American cultures.

Cacao plus cane sugar: a Spanish invention

When the first Spaniards on the American continent added cane sugar to cacao with the idea of making its bitter flavor more acceptable to the European taste for the sweet-sour, they shaped its future. Cane sugar, cinnamon and vanilla replaced other spices and chili, and contributed to the rapid spread of the new product. Dominican nuns who arrived in Oaxaca (Mexico) in 1529, and went on to found the Monastery of Santa Catalina de Siena in 1540, are thought to have been the first to add cane sugar to chocolate and to drink it hot and sweet instead of cold and spicy.

It was considered to be a therapeutic drink. The Maya already drank cacao as a source of energy and as an analgesic for wounds, stomach pains and colds. Sixteenth century Europeans appreciated its invigorating qualities and, from the 18th century on, it was also believed to cure phthisis, the name given to tuberculosis then, and love-sickness.


Cacao spreads through Europe

Cacao spreads through Europe

For nearly a century, Spain’s royal family and aristocracy kept the recipe, indeed the existence, of this supposedly therapeutic cacao-based drink a secret. There are various stories about how chocolate reached Europe from Spain, many of them mutually contradictory and all difficult to verify. Some scholars believe that Spanish aristocrat and soldier Manuel Filiberto, (1528-1580) Duke of Savoy (known as the Iron Headed Duke) may have taken it to Turin when he transferred the capital of his duchy to that city in 1563.

Others opt for Florentine traveler Francesco d'Antonio Carletti having discovered the secret of Spanish chocolate during travels in America begun in 1597 (his account of which describes in detail the processes of planting and 5.preparing it) and exported it first to Italy (in 1606), from where it spread to the rest of Europe, perhaps being passed from one monastery to 6.another. Another version is that, despite the skeptical attitude of the French Court towards a product of which they were already aware but considered barbarous and harmful, the Paris Faculty of Medicine approved it.

Furthermore, Anne of Austria (1573-1598) (the new Spanish wife of King Louis XIII of Bourbon, King of France (1601-1643), daughter of Philip III of Spain (1578-1621)) was a chocolate lover and gave it acceptability by declaring it an ‘official drink of the (French) Court in 7.1615. Another legend has it that chocolate did not reach the other nations of Europe until that same year (1615) because when the Infanta Anne of Austria married Louis XIII of France, she took the recipe for chocolate to the French Court as part of her dowry.

It may also have reached France by the ecclesiastical route: Alphonse Richelieu (1582-1653), brother of the more famous cardinal, Armand-Jean Richelieu (1585-1642), who became addicted to chocolate, apparently obtained the secret recipe from ‘certain Spanish nuns who brought it to 8.France’.

It is thought to have reached Germany from Italy in the 1640s, and the British Court in 1657, when a French citizen opened a shop in London called ‘The Coffee Mill and Tobacco Roll’: among other things, it sold solid cakes of cacao with which to make the exotic drink. It quickly became immensely popular, perhaps boosted by a report praising the qualities of the new product recently arrived from New Spain, published that year in the 9.Public Advertiser. Consumption of chocolate then spread to Germany, Holland, Switzerland and the rest of Europe.

The Spanish cacao trade

The Spaniards’ taste for chocolate was demonstrated by the fact of their continuing to cultivate the cacao plant in Mesoamerica and extending its cultivation to other regions of the new continent. The first regions to supply the Spanish territories with cacao were Soconusco, in Guatemala, and Oaxaca, in 10.New Spain. Later, the crop was implanted in Venezuela, where the natural conditions were better, production more prolific and transport more convenient. The first cacao exports from Venezuela in 1607 were bound for Cartagena (southeastern Spain).

Bearing in mind that cacao plants reach maturity after ten years, cultivation would have begun in the last decade of the 16th century, perhaps because the colonists lost their initial wheat harvests to 11. blight. Venezuelan cacao had the advantage of being less bitter, which meant that it needed less cane sugar added to it. Around that same time, the first plantations were made in Guayaquil (Ecuador), which developed into a direct competitor for Venezuela as a cacao producer, despite the impediment of a ban on trade in the Pacific and the protests of the Venezuelans. However, its (lower) price and its (less refined) bitterness made it the ideal product to meet the considerable demands of the Mexican market.

Smuggling cacao

A sequence of measures issued by the Spanish Crown prohibiting Native American producers from trading with other countries gave rise to a thriving contraband trade in cacao from the early 17th century on. The demand for cacao from Holland, Britain and France was fulfilled by contraband product.

France began importing cacao from Martinique in 1679. It was in the 17th century, too, that the Spanish took the first cacao plants to Africa and started growing it on Fernando Poo (now known as Bioko), an island located opposite the Gulf of Guinea that was a Spanish colony until 1968.

While legal trade generated revenue for the Spanish Crown, smuggling did so for the indigenous producers although it was a risky business, being punishable by death. In 1716, a Royal Decree issued by Philip V (1683-1746) declared all ecclesiastics wishing to export cacao to New Spain in order to raise funds for their colonial work exempt from taxation. Charles III (1716-1788) was obliged to revoke this prerogative in 1776 due to the abuses perpetrated by ecclesiastics who exported not only their own small yields of cacao but also large quantities produced by lay growers, thereby becoming major smugglers themselves.

18th C. Spanish trading companies

In the 18th century, the Spanish Crown backed the production of, and trade in, certain products (cane sugar, cacao, tobacco) which would promote certain regions of America while at the same time helping Spain recover her position of power within Europe. This had been waning since the European crisis of the late 17th and early 18th centuries had given England the lead after the Treaty of Utrecht.

On 25th September 1728, Philip V of Spain created the Real Compañía Guipuzcoana de Caracas trading company with the aim of establishing reciprocal but exclusive trade relations between Venezuela and Spain and thus consolidating the trade in those products for Spain, where they were much more lucrative. However, smuggling was so profitable that the perpetrators could afford to bribe officials - and even the agents of the Compañía Guipuzcoana – and the contraband trade continued to thrive.

Cacao goes to Africa

Cacao was not grown in any other parts of the world until the 19th century, when it was planted first in Brazil, and then in the Portuguese colonies of Príncipe (in 1822) and Santo Tomé (in 1830). cacao growing in continental Africa began in Ghana, where it was introduced by the British in 1879, followed by West Africa from 1951 on. Between 1880 and 1890, Ecuador was the world’s biggest exporter of cacao, but ceded this position of honor to Ghana from the last decade of the 19th century on. It was as a result of this African boom that cacao-growing on a grand scale took off and cacao became a product of mass consumption all over the world.

Cacao consumption in Spain

Cacao consumption in Spain

The Spanish liked their chocolate thick and hot right from the start. Members of the aristocracy used to vie with each other for the reputation of best hot chocolate maker. In the mid-17th century, so much chocolate drinking went on in Spain that in 1644 the mayor of Madrid went so far as to prohibit its being served commercially because of the ‘spectacle of idleness’ that the custom of getting together for a cup of hot chocolate generated. Such was the importance of chocolate in the Spain of that period that, between 1663 and 1789, no fewer than 103 legal orders were issued in connection with the cacao trade and 12.industry.

During the reign of Charles III (1716-1788), 12 million pounds of chocolate were consumed in Madrid per 13.year. It is still a Madrid tradition to drink thick hot chocolate at merienda time in the late afternoon or at breakfast time. In the 18th century, chocolate was still considered a gift fit for royalty to both give and receive. For example, Queen Isabel de Farnesio (1692-1766), newly arrived from Italy in 1734, made a present of twelve arrobas (25,35lb) of chocolate to her son, the future Charles III; some time later, having acceded to the throne, Charles himself sent a gift of cacao, vanilla and cinnamon turrón (Spanish nougat) to the Pope.

Documents from 1839 show that cacao supplies for the Palace were obtained from Caracas, Trinidad, Soconusco and 14.Guayaquil.

French and Swiss style chocolate

When the French discovered chocolate, they changed the preparation method and opted to drink it more liquid, and cold. Thus the divergence of taste expressed by the epithets ‘Spanish style’ and ‘French style’ applied to drinking chocolate dates back to the 17th century.

Back in the colonial period, chocolate was either a first or main course at breakfast and merienda time, and was generally served in silver-embellished coconut shells. The South American peasantry often poured chocolate over cheese before eating

Each country consumed chocolate in ways adapted to suit its own tastes. The water in which the cacao was dissolved was gradually replaced by milk. In the 19th century, chocolate drinks began to be replaced by coffee, so that cacao supplies had to be refined and specialized for the product to hold its own. Balls of cacao paste were followed by sweetened bars, which could be eaten in private (becoming a sweet from then on).

The route that eventually led to the invention of the chocolate bar began in Switzerland, where François Louis Caillier (1796-1852) established the first Swiss chocolate factory in 1819. In 1826, Phillip Suchard (1797-1884) added ground hazelnuts to chocolate, and around 1842 Joseph Frey used cacao butter to create the first chocolate bar which, furthermore, contained alcoholic liquor.

Daniel Peter (1836-1919), a Swiss inventor, had the idea of making a creamy paste out of milk and cacao. He experimented for years before achieving his aim in 1875 with the help of Henry Nestlé, a manufacturer of evaporated milk, who mixed cacao paste with sweetened condensed milk, thereby creating the first milk chocolate.

Nevertheless, until the late 19th century, chocolate was consumed in liquid form all over the world. Then, in 1879, Swiss pharmacist Rodolphe Lindt (1855-1909) came up with the idea of incorporating processed cacao butter into the mixture to obtain a solid, creamy, yet crisp texture that melted in the mouth. The result revolutionized chocolate consumption.

Cacao varieties

There are three subspecies of cacao that are cultivated in various parts of the world for eating purposes: criollo, forastero and trinitario. The criollo type gives more cacao per pod. Trinitario is a hybrid variety generated naturally and accidentally from criollo and forastero cacao plants on the island of Trinidad in the early 18th century.

Around 90% of the cacao grown is of the forastero subspecies, originally from the Amazon jungle, easy to mix with other varieties and only very slightly bitter. This is the predominant type in the African plantations. Although there are 34 producing countries in Asia (especially Java), America and Africa, the last of these is the biggest producer, accounting for 60% of the world’s cacao 16.production distributed among three main regions: Ghana, Ivory Coast and Santo Tomé.

Trinitario cacao (fruity, acidic and delicately bitter) and criollo cacao (regarded as a particularly fine variety - the end result of thousands of years of selection by the peoples of Mesoamerica), are produced in much smaller quantities, and nearly all in America.

The best cacao in the world is ‘porcelana’ - a rare variety of criollo grown in the Andean region of Venezuela, highly aromatic, smooth on the palate and delicately textured. It is an extremely fragile plant and, because of the difficulties involved, is now grown in merely token quantities. Venezuela is considered to be source of the best cacao because (along with Ecuador) it is the world’s biggest grower of criollo cacao.

By-products of cacao

The first product obtained from cacao beans is cacao paste. After harvesting, the fruits go through an ageing process. They are then pre-fermented for five to ten days to eliminate bitterness and intensify flavor, before the beans are extracted and put through a fermentation process that rids them of their pulpy coating, kills the embryo they contain and shapes their chocolate y aromas and flavors. They are then dried, washed or cleaned, and placed in suitable storage. The prepared beans are roasted, winnowed to remove their shells, and ground up, the resultant cacao paste being stored in the form of flat cakes.

The next stage is the extraction of cacao butter from the paste. This process came into use in 1828, when Dutch chocolatier C.J. van Houten (1801-1887) invented a special press that extracted all the fat from cacao paste. Cacao butter is one of the most stable natural fats: it possesses fine nutritional and other qualities in that it contains natural anti-oxidants which prevent it from going rancid, so that it can be kept for years without going off. It is also used in pharmaceuticals and cosmetics.

The remaining (fat free) chocolate is cacao powder, also known as ‘Dutch chocolate’, for which there are many uses in cooking.

Chocolate making

Combining beans from which cacao butter is to be extracted gives chocolate its flavor and aroma. The product of mixing cacao paste and cacao butter with cane sugar, to which natural aromas such as vanilla, and thickeners are sometimes added, undergoes a process known as ‘conching’, which entails ‘massaging’ the mixture until its ingredients are all perfectly emulsified. The resultant paste (cacao cream) is then beaten, spread out, tempered by controlled heating, and cooled.

The main types of chocolate made are: dark chocolate, which is a mixture of Cacao cream with cane sugar, and which is now available with a Cacao content of over 90%; milk chocolate, for which Cacao is mixed with sweetened condensed milk or milk powder; white chocolate, made from Cacao butter to which milk and cane sugar are added; and liquid chocolate, which is made with vegetable oils other than Cacao butter. Filled chocolates are small portions of dark, milk or white chocolate into which various fillings have been inserted.

For making the majority of chocolates, Cacao pastes from the producing countries are used, made of forastero (‘ordinary’) Cacao, which are sometimes mixed with small quantities of criollo (‘fine and aromatic’) or trinitario, to raise aroma and quality levels.

Chocolates made from 100% ‘fine and aromatic’ cacao are of the topmost quality since the raw material is expensive and rare. They tend to be used for chocolate couverture, a product made with top-of-the-range pure Cacao butter. .

Chocolate production in Spain

Spain’s first chocolate makers, the Cistercian monks of Piedra monastery in Zaragoza, still make high quality chocolates to this day. The leading Spanish chocolate producers are companies that began in the 19th century. Among them all, the companies that are still carrying on Zaragoza Province’s chocolate making tradition deserve special mention. Nokoa is one example - an artisan company that has been making chocolates since 1858; the chocolate makers of Vila Joiosa, a little town on the Alicante coast (Valencia) are another - they have been making chocolates there for two hundred years. At the start of the 20th century, the town had 39 artisan chocolatiers, many of whom would visit customers in their own homes and make a year’s worth of chocolate for the family in situ.

In the mid-19th century, artisan chocolate making became industrialized: in 1858, there were 22 grinding stones in the town; in 1864, machinery was introduced. At the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, there were 39 factories; by the 1960s, this number had been reduced to 18 by various mergers and amalgamations, and by the 1970s to 12.

Spanish historical chocolate brands

Spanish historical chocolate brands

In the 1980s and 1990s, the surviving companies made a qualitative leap and their products did well in the sophisticated international marketplace. Nowadays, there are just three chocolate manufacturers left in Vila Joiosa: Hermanos López Lloret, Herederos de Gaspar Pérez and Chocolates Valor (this last having been there since 1881).

One of the main chocolate producers in the history of the product in Spain was Galician entrepreneur Matías López (1825 -1891). He became one of the richest men in the world on the strength of a chocolate empire, becoming a moderate Republican Member of Parliament and being appointed a life senator by King Alfonso XII (king of Spain from 1874 till 1885) in recognition of his contributions to the Public Exchequer. He was the first manufacturer to put a brand name (Matías López) on his chocolate wrappers to differentiate them from other manufacturers’ products, and was something of a marketing pioneer in Europe as a whole, launching a major advertising campaign in 1888 with posters urging people to eat his chocolates. He was involved in the setting up of the Madrid Chamber of Commerce and was the first Spanish industrialist to exhibit his products at the Paris Universal Exhibition in 1889.

His family moved to Madrid in 1844, and he set up the first chocolate mill there in 1851, on Calle Jacometrezo, a street behind the Plaza del Callao in central Madrid. His business grew and grew, and he set up more mills in other parts of Madrid and in A Coruña and Lugo (Galicia). In 1866, he opened a chocolate factory in a building on Calle La Palma, in Madrid, where, by 1870, 5 tons a day (4/5 of the nation’s consumption) was produced. Later, he created one of the biggest factories in Spain in the little town of El Escorial just outside Madrid, where he provided his employees with homes, free education for their children in the factory school and set up one of the first company stores selling goods at low prices to employees. His son inherited the factory.

Matías Lopez’s secret was to use mixtures of the best quality Cacao with cinnamon and honey. He also believed in his product, declaring that it “invigorates the respiratory system, conserves heat...restores 17.strength”. At the end of the 19th century, over 24 million pounds of chocolate were eaten per year in Spain 18.alone.

In 1854, capitalizing on the creation of Madrid’s first railway line, which linked the capital with Aranjuez, another enormous chocolate factory was opened in Pinto (Madrid): La Colonial, founded by French brothers Jaime and Edmundo Meric, remained operational until 1940.

In the 20 th century one of the most widely consumed Cacao products in Spain was Cola Cao, a soluble cacao powder produced by Nutrexpa in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War (1946), one of many products aimed at covering the nutritional needs of a hungry nation. In fact, Cola Cao has been the standard breakfast for Spanish children since the 1950s.

From the 1990s on, other Spanish companies, such as producers of Christmas sweets (turrón- Spanish nougat-, marzipan), proactively entered the market for chocolate, filled chocolates and other cacao-derived products. The first organic cacao appeared in the international marketplace in the late 19.1980s. Since then, many other producers have subscribed to that and other initiatives, selling ‘fair trade’ chocolate in the developed countries, for example, where it is making a niche for itself in an increasingly selective market.


Enrique García Ballesteros, (BA in Early Modern and Modern History and MA in Communication and Journalism) is a Spanish historian, writer and journalist. He has published over a hundred scientific and general interest articles on history and the media in prestigious magazines such as Historia National Geographic and La Aventura de la Historia. He has also authored biographies, interviews and book reviews for major institutions and the Spanish press. He is a regular contributor to the Spanish national daily newspapers El Mundo and Público (now online version only).

Research coordination: María del Carmen Simón Palmer, has a phD in history and is a research professor at the Spanish National Research Council, CSIC. She is a member of the governing body of the Real Academia de Gastronomía. Her published works include: La cocina de Palacio (1591-1932), (Castalia, 1997) and Bibliografía de la Gastronomía y Alimentación en España, (Trea, 2003).

Translation: Hawys Pritchard, M.A. (University of London) is a freelance translator currently based in Wales and Mallorca. Her work has appeared in various books and magazines (including Spain Gourmetour) that reflect her interest in food, wine, travel, art and architecture.

Photo credits

Cacao in the pre-Columbian cultures
Man holding a cacao bean. Aztec sculpture, Museo Nacional de Antropología, Mexico DF, Mexico. Licensed under Creative Commons & GNU.

Spain's discovery of chocolate
Woman pouring chocolate. Codex Tudela, Museo de América, Madrid, Spain. Licensed under PD Creative Commons by Lobo.

Cacao spreads through Europe
Drawing of the anatomy of the Theobroma (cacao) plant by Francisco Javier Matiz (1763-1851). Digitalization project of the drawings of the Royal Botanical Expedition to the New Kingdom of Granada (1783-1816) directed by José Celestino Mutis, Real Jardín Botánico-CSIC.

Cacao consumption in Spain
Bodegón con servicio de chocolate y bollos. Still life with chocolate service and pastries.Luis Meléndez (1716-1780), Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain.

Spanish historical chocolate brands
1910 advertising poster from chocolate factory Manuel Miguelez Santos. Amando Casado. ©Museo del Chocolate de Astorga, León, Spain.