What We Eat: The Story of Chocolate - #101

BURT WOLF: What We Eat, the true story of why we put sugar in our coffee and ketchup on our fries.

Originally, all life that lived on land lived on one giant continent.  Then forces inside the earth started breaking that land mass into the continents we have today and pushing them apart.

Slightly over 500 years ago a counter force appeared and started pulling everything back together. Only this time it wasn’t a geological force, it was the force of human culture and the point man was Christopher Columbus. During the ten years between Columbus’ first voyage in 1492 and his final trip in 1502, new forces totally changed the course of history.

Millions of people moved from one continent to another, governments changed and religions were exported. But surprisingly, the most important changes were not the result of politics or religion; they were the result of plants and animals being exchanged between two worlds.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: We call them the Old World and the New World, but I think what we really had were two old worlds. After all, people have been living in the America’s for 35,000 years. Even to a man my age that’s a considerable length of time. I think what Columbus did was introduce the two Old Worlds and in the process create one new one.  And the exchange of plants and animals that took place altered the way people ate and that changed everything on the planet. What our series does is look at those changes and how they continue to affect our lives everyday in ways you wouldn’t imagine.


BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: In 1502, Columbus set sail on his fourth and final voyage. As usual he was trying to get to Asia.  He believed that the islands of the Caribbean were just off shore from China and Japan. Poor guy—he never had a clue.

BURT WOLF: On this last voyage, his first landfall was in the Bay Islands about 30 miles north of Honduras. As his ship sat at anchor, the crew saw a tremendous dugout canoe.

Columbus’s son Ferdinand reported that he saw a ship as long as a Venetian galley with a cargo of almond-like beans, which the natives valued so highly that when one dropped, they all stooped to pick it up as if an eye had fallen. It was a Maya trading canoe, about 150 feet long and carrying a cargo of cacao beans. Columbus was the first European to come in contact with the source of chocolate. And as usual, he had no idea of what he was looking at.

The Maya dominated the east coast of Central America from 250 to 900 AD. Their culture, art and architecture were on a level with that of ancient Greece and Renaissance Italy. And they were great chocolate masters.

The Maya had a written language and often wrote about chocolate. In a Maya book which pre-dates the arrival of the Spanish there are seated gods holding cacao pods and dishes filled with cacao beans. The text states that cacao is to be offered during the New Year celebrations.

Cacao pods also appear on carved vessels that were placed in the graves of important members of Maya society. An illustration on an 8th century vase from northern Guatemala shows a Maya king seated on his throne, below him a vase for chocolate drinks.

Women poured chocolate from one jar to another creating a foam on top, which was the most desirable part of the beverage.

Chocolate drinks played an important part in Maya gatherings and celebrations.

MICHAEL COE ON CAMERA: The Maya, we have some evidence for this, used it to cement marriage relationships where they were negotiating for a bride, let's say.  A major Maya king or ruler or chief or a big cheese of some sort or another would throw a feast at which cacao in the form of frothy chocolate was brought out and they drank this and that cemented this particular relationship.  So it was used during negotiations of all sorts among the Maya. 


The Aztecs picked up the use of chocolate and cacao from the Maya. And they worshiped the god who gave chocolate to the world.

MICHAEL COE ON CAMERA: I think the Aztecs had the same approach to chocolate as the Mayas did.  It wasn't a drink for ordinary people.  It was a drink, for the elite, as it became later on in Europe for the top echelons of society.  This included the nobility, the king and his retinue, the palace, the great warriors that also were allowed to drink chocolate.  It was only in a drink.  Not in solid form.  They had some really good reporters there in the way of Spanish priests who told us, all about their lives and we know that among them chocolate had a  really almost a sanctified aspect to it.  In fact, it was conceived symbolically as human blood.  And so it really was like Communion wine in many respects.

BURT WOLF: The Aztecs flavored the chocolate drink with allspice, vanilla, honey, chilies, corn, and flowers.

In the Mexican State of Tabasco, I found a family still using the ancient recipe.  They started by grinding corn with an almost-modern hand grinder.  Cacao beans are ground on a stone metate; this method of grinding has been around for over 5,000 years.  The ground corn and the ground chocolate are mixed together.  Water is added and the mixing continues.  Then the solids are sieved off; the liquid is poured up and back a dozen times and the chocolate is ready to drink.

MICHAEL COE ON CAMERA: When the Spaniards first came to Mexico and they saw people drinking chocolate and were offered it and tried it.  They'd have thought it was horrible.  In fact, one of our sources who was an Italian traveling with him says it was only basically fit for pigs.  It was so bad.  It was bitter.  They didn't like the color of it.  It made your mouth black.  Or if they mixed it up with a spice called achiote, which is red, it made your mouth look red and dyed your lips and they thought it was the most disgusting stuff.  It wasn't until later that they realized how good it was.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: The first person to call the Americas “the New World” was an Italian living in Spain. In 1516, he wrote a book called “The New World.” It described the events that were taking place in Mexico and the Caribbean including the use of cacao beans as currency.

BURT WOLF: He called their money Happy Money because they did not pull the earth apart searching for gold and silver the way the Spanish did. Their Happy Money grew on trees. The Spanish adopted cacao beans as currency to trade with the Maya. But the beans traveled back to Spain for a different purpose.


BURT WOLF: European medical theories of the 15th and 16th centuries were primitive. The Native Americans had a much more advanced system based on their extensive knowledge of plants and their use to affect real cures. When word of the New World’s pharmacy reached King Philip II of Spain, he sent his Royal Physician, Francisco Hernandez to Mexico. And even though cacao was not used by Native Americans as a medicine, Hernandez included it in his bag of cures.

Hernandez, in a letter to the king, pointed out that the Cacao seed is nourishing and good in hot weather to cure fevers. When pepper is added it has an agreeable taste and warmed the stomach and perfuming the breath. It would combat poisons, and alleviates intestinal pains. He also mentioned that it excites the sexual appetite.


BURT WOLF: The cacao bean finally made its debut and was presented to European royalty in 1544. The Dominican Friars who were among the first and most energetic missionaries in the Americas, took a delegation of Maya nobles to visit Prince Philip in Spain. Among the gifts they brought were bowls of chocolate. This was opening day for chocolate in Europe. But it would be forty years before regular shipments started to arrive.

PAUL ROZIN ON CAMERA: The original problem was that chocolate beans come from Mexico.  They're bitter, they don't have such a great smell, and they don't have any of the obvious potential that the Europeans developed in it…when they brought it back from Mexico.  They learned to dry it, to ferment it, to roast it, to mix it with various things, including vanilla, and then, of course, to bring out that fat by by heating in a complex way.  And then, of course, it was a little bitter but when they got the sugar from the sugar cane they added that and then, of course, sometimes later milk. So they created, through a very complex technology, a food that appeals ideally to humans, and is totally different from its origin. So it's basically designed in its texture, in its taste, in its aroma, and in its caloric load, to be an ideal food.


BURT WOLF: In 1660, Maria Teresa, daughter of the king of Spain, married Louis XIV, king of France. The new queen loved chocolate. But the king did not and so she sipped her chocolate in private. Within ten years though, in spite of Louie’s opinion, drinking chocolate became popular with the French upper-class.  Louis XVI granted a royal monopoly for chocolate. In France, chocolate was tightly controlled by a centralized authority and was only available to the aristocracy.

In pre-Spanish times, the Mesoamericans poured the chocolate liquid from one jar to another in order to produce the desired foam--a time consuming process. In the 16th century the Spanish colonists introduced the molinillo --a wooden utensil that they placed into a pot and twirled between their hands.

SUSANA TRILLING ON CAMERA : She’s making a chocolate con leche.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Hot chocolate milk.

SUSANA TRILLING ON CAMERA: Well, it is.  It’s ... it’s actually considered the most ritualistic, the most incredible drink you can give somebody here.  It’s Mexico’s gift to the world.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: And it’s milk.

SUSANA TRILLING ON CAMERA: Milk with chocolate.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Chocolate melted in it and then whipped up.

SUSANA TRILLING ON CAMERA: And the foam is considered the most important part of the drink.

BURT WOLF: The French covered the pot with a lid and made a hole in the top for the molinillo. It quickly became the preferred way of making the foam.

Chocolate traveled from one royal court to another as a medicine. But it soon became appreciated for its taste and its stimulating effect on the nervous system. A medicine with a curative power converted to recreational use.


BURT WOLF TO CAMERA: So chocolate became a health food. But there was still one more barrier it had to pass before it became fully accepted, and that was ecclesiastical. The problem was the Catholic Church couldn’t decide whether chocolate was a medicine which could be taken at any time, or a food, which would not be allowed during periods of fasting.

BURT WOLF: The Society of Jesus— the official name of the Jesuits — was founded in 1534 and was the militant arm of the church — zealous defenders of the pope’s supremacy. They maintained a tightly controlled worldwide organization.

In 1650, they prohibited Jesuits from drinking chocolate, but quickly rescinded the decision when students started leaving the seminary.

MICHAEL COE ON CAMERA: Once it had been decided by the ecclesiastical authorities that chocolate did not break the fast, in other words, during lent and times like that you could take chocolate because it was not considered a food. Once that was done then the Jesuits went into high gear and they had a big commercial operation with cacao, growing cacao commercially through much of Latin America where, you know, the Latin American tropics where the stuff would grow.  They drank a lot of it themselves, too.  They were big chocolate imbibers.  But they definitely shipped a lot of chocolate back and made a lot of money from the New World into the Old World.

A big shipment came into the main Spanish port, which was Cadiz in Spain.  And it was so heavy, these crates that supposedly contained chocolate that the porters could barely carry them.  And finally the authorities demanded that they be opened up and this ... this so-called chocolate inspected.  And they looked at these huge bars of chocolate which weighed a tremendous amount.  It turned out that there was about a finger's width of chocolate on the outside of that coating, solid gold bars.  This was smuggling of the first degree because all gold belonged to the crown, not to the Jesuits or the church or anybody else.  So they had been breaking crown law.  And the upshot of that was that it was confiscated, the gold was, and they gave the chocolate to the porters.

BURT  WOLF ON CAMERA: Chocolate’s rich and intense flavor made it an ideal medium for poison and assassins put it to regular use. My favorite story in this regard is about a group of Spanish noble women who lived in Mexico in the 1600s. They would bring chocolate to church, the bishop was infuriated and threatened to excommunicate anyone who drank chocolate in church. The women were unhappy but equally unrepentant and they had the bishop poisoned.  Of course, the poison was delivered to the bishop’s lips in a cup of chocolate.


BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: In 1655, English troops took the island of Jamaica from the Spanish. Cacao beans had been a big business on Jamaica and the English quickly realized both the gastronomic and economic significance of the crop. Jamaica became England’s primary source for the cacao bean.

BURT WOLF: Chocolate, coffee, tea and sugar all entered England at the same time and at the highest social levels, but that soon changed. Unlike France, England was a nation of shopkeepers.  And when chocolate came into the country anybody who could afford to buy a cup of chocolate could have it.  The rising middle class began to drink chocolate in houses that were hotbeds of political debate.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: During the middle of the1600s, Dr. Henry Stubbes was England’s leading authority on chocolate and in fact regularly prepared chocolate for King Charles II.  Like most of his contemporaries in England and on the continent, Stubbes thought that chocolate was an aphrodisiac. At one point he published an essay on chocolate’s erotic properties which of course sent chocolate sales through the bedroom roof.


BURT WOLF: Chocolate comes from the cacao tree, which is difficult to grow, uncooperative and moody. It refuses to bear fruit unless it’s growing inside a narrow strip of land near the Equator. It demands moisture throughout the year and the temperature must never fall below 60 degrees Fahrenheit.  Among the short cacao trees you will find large shade trees that protect the cacao from too much direct sun or wind.

The cacao tree is one of the worlds’ most inefficient biological systems.  Each tree will produce hundreds of flowers but only one to three percent of them will bear fruit and the tree will take about three years to get around to that. The small flowers are pollinated exclusively by little bugs that live on the forest floor.

A worker moves between the trees, cutting the roots of any plant that might compete with the cacao.  Disturbing the leaves on the ground also increases the activity of the bugs that pollinate the leaves.

After four or five months, each pollinated flower will produce a large pod containing thirty to forty almond shaped seeds or beans surrounded by a sweet pulp.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: The plant can’t even open its own pods — it depends on squirrels, small monkeys and large monkeys also known as human beings to disperse its seeds. The squirrels and monkeys steal the pods and open them up because they love the white, sweet connective tissue.  They throw away the bitter beans.

BURT WOLF: Workers split the pods to get to the seeds and the surrounding pulp. The two are allowed to sit and ferment together for five or six days. The pulp becomes liquid and drains away.

Sacks of the seeds are sent to ferment for about four days. Each day they are turned.  When they arrive, they were still covered with some of the white connective tissue from the pod.  As they ferment they begin to turn brown.

To stop the fermentation, the seeds which are now called beans, are dried.  They can be dried in the factory in long concrete bins.  Often hot air is blown over them by machines.

Or they can be dried in the traditional way by being spread out on canvas mats in the sun.

Either way, after they’re dried they are bagged and shipped to a chocolate factory. When they arrive at the factory, they are roasted and toasted.  Then the outside shell is removed. What remains is called a "nib." 

The remaining “nib” is ground to a paste in a machine that works like a giant food processor. The liquid that comes out is called “cacao liquor”. The Cacao liquor goes into a cylinder where it’s put under enormous pressure. The liquid that comes out of the press, is called cocoa butter and is separated from the solids, which are called cocoa. In 1823, Coenraad Van Houten a Dutch chemist invented this process.  It’s called “Dutching” and it removes most of the fat from the chocolate solids.

BURT  WOLF ON CAMERA: The old, thick and foamy drink was replaced by a much more digestible and easier to make cocoa. And thanks to Van Houten’s invention, manufacturers were able to produce an affordable chocolate.


PAUL ROZIN ON CAMERA: One of the special things about chocolate is that it's the only natural fat that melts at body temperature.  So it gives you that experience that it's solid in your mouth and then it just melts into velvet in your mouth. And nothing else like that. There's a lot of people trying to get a non- nutritive fat that does that, but at the moment chocolate is the queen of fat.

BURT WOLF: In 1848, an Englishman blended cocoa powder, sugar, and melted cocoa butter and  produced a paste that was poured into a mold. The world’s first formed chocolate.

JOËL GLENN BRENNER ON CAMERA: Up until World War I, there was really no such thing as a candy bar. So how did this happen?  Well, when the soldiers were drafted to fight in Europe during the war, the military realized that they needed some kind of energy food to give to the warriors to help them fight, to help them stay, you know, battle ready, and, it needed to be light and small and easy to carry, but it had to pack a lot of calories.  Well, they turned to the candy industry, and they said what can you come up with?  And before you knew it, during that first war, every candy company in America was churning out bite-sized individually wrapped pieces that the soldiers could take with them into the battlefield.

BURT WOLF: Since the end of the 1800s, Switzerland has dominated the world of chocolate. Today its citizens are the number one consumers averaging almost 12 pounds of chocolate per person per year.

Now, the only thing the Swiss enjoy as much as money and chocolate are the cows that give them some of the world’s finest milk. In 1879, Henri Nestle, a Swiss chemist, who developed powdered milk, combined forces with Daniel Peter, a Swiss chocolate maker and they produced the world’s first milk chocolate.

JOËL GLENN BRENNER ON CAMERA: Milk is a water-based substance.  Chocolate, a fat-based substance.  We all know that oil and water don't mix.  So getting milk and chocolate to blend together in a way that was smooth and edible was a very, very difficult process. But Mr. Peter was an expert in milk products. And he realized that if he took dried milk, having removed the water, then added it to the chocolate liqueur and the cocoa butter, and then introduced the water again later in the process, he could get a smooth and creamy chocolate. All of a sudden, you have a product that not only tasted better, but more and more people could afford.

BURT WOLF: Chocolate is an alkaloid and like all alkaloids it will stimulate the nervous system. It also contains small amounts of caffeine, but how the caffeine will affect you is a function of your individual tolerance as well as your cultural beliefs. If you think a cup of chocolate will wake you up it probably will.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: If you believed it would be soothing it probably will be.

A chocolate drink with foam on top --- just the way the Maya served it a thousand years ago. The Latin word for the cacao tree translates into English as “food of the Gods”. That’s pretty good because a lot of us believe that chocolate is heavenly. For What We Eat I’m Burt Wolf.