Chocolate is an incredibly popular food that has managed to reach all four corners of the earth ever since first traders filled their ship cargos with cocoa bean and sailed from Central America back to the Spain where this new and fascinating treat was embraced. With the slow but steady adoption of chocolate by Spain nobles and royals, chocolate became staple of the European high class cuisine, forcing the quick expansion of the cocoa production in Central America and Africa. But this rise of popularity would never happened without the support of Spain, who first realized potential of cocoa bean which was initially viewed as inedible food that was unpleasant and bitter to taste.
But how chocolate came into Spanish hands? The first encounter of cocoa bean with the European explorers came during the exciting years of the Age of Sail. Pushed by the high taxes that Venetian states enforced on all land travel between Europe and rich India and China, Spain and Portugal created large fleets of exploratory ships with a sole goal of finding the sea route to orient. While some focused on exploring southern coasts of Africa, Christopher Columbus with the backing of the Spain elected to sail all the way it was possible to the west. This led him to the discovery of the New World for which he though was the remote part of Asia, land that was under firm grasp of the Portugal traders. During his 4th journey to the New World, sudden summer storm in 1502 forced him to land in Bay Islands, where he encountered surprisingly large trading boat that originated from Mayan lands. Seeing unexpected ship commanded by the natives, Columbus detained the ship and found in its cargo large cache of cocoa beans. Not seeing any significance to this inedible and strange bean, he let the ship go and returned to Europe.
More than 15 years later, organized military force of Spanish Conquistadors arrived to the territory controlled by Mayans and Aztec, where they came in much closer contact with cocoa and the cold and bitter chocolate drink “chocolatl” that was seasoned with strange spices (vanilla, peppers). They saw that this drink was consumed by all natives, beans were used as money, and Aztec royalty had a specific rituals and recipes regarding this strange drink. After destroying Aztec Empire, Hernan Cortes devised his plans of manufacture and transport of cocoa beans to Europe. After improving the recipe of chocolate drink with the addition of sugar (which was not present in Central America before arrival of Europeans), Spanish court and nobles embraced this very expensive drink. Around 1580, organized transport of cocoa beans started arriving to Spanish ports. For around 100 years, only Spain and Portugal maintained tradition of consuming this exotic drink, but that changed in late 17th and early 18th century when European high class from other countries embraced chocolate. The fascination of nobles with drinking chocolate went to such levels that Central America and Africa became large suppliers of cocoa beans to Europe and North America. Nobles of that time used chocolate not only to showcase and “prove” their wealth to others, but also to entertain visitors. 17th and 18th century Spanish custom demanded that ladies gifted male visitors with the cup of chocolate cup, which was consumed by sitting on expensive cushions.
This time represented the golden age of chocolate in Spain. Shortly thereafter, coffee replaced chocolate in the homes of nobles and royals, and advances in chocolate production brought prices down and enabled everyone to enjoy this great sweet food.