Raw cocoa beans, as Columbus would have found them. nuts.

The Introduction of Chocolate to Europe

Plenty of people today might claim that chocolate is a gift from the gods, something that the Aztecs, the inventors of chocolate, themselves believed. The Aztecs of Central America used cacao seeds, which they thought were gifts from their chief god, Quetzalcoatl, to make a beverage that was typically seasoned with spices. It was a very bitter concoction that was drunk mainly for ceremonial purposes. Other Native American tribes, like the Olmecs and Incas, enjoyed the cocoa bean, as well. They probably believed that it had health benefits, something that modern science emphasizes, as long as high levels of sugar are not added to it.

Chocolate was unknown in Europe until the Middle Ages were drawing to a close and contact with outside cultures spawned the Renaissance. In 1492, Christopher Columbus “discovered” the Americas and began the process of introducing many of the treasures of Native American culture to a receptive European audience. In 1502, during his fourth voyage, he realized that these peoples set a heavy value on the cocoa beans when he and his crew seized a canoe that was used to transport them. Unsure of what cocoa beans were, they called them “almonds,” something more familiar to a European audience.

His son, Ferdinand, who accompanied him, noted the natives’ affinity for the cocoa beans, “for when they were brought on board ship together with their goods, I observed that when any of these almonds fell, they all stooped to pick it up, as if an eye had fallen.” The beans seemed almost to have a divine quality to them, which isn’t surprising, given that some of the Native Americans actually did associate them with their gods. Other conquistadors in the 16th century, especially Hernando Cortes, also noted the importance of cacao in native practices.

When Columbus first brought cocoa beans with him to Europe, they hardly made a splash. Initially, it was used as a medicine, particularly for stomach ailments, as its bitter taste made physicians believe that it would effectively cure their patients. At this time, Europe was experiencing an increase in trade with other countries and discovering different ways of seasoning their foods. People experimenting with chocolate discovered that when sweetened with sugar, also a product of the Americas, it became a decadent, irresistible commodity. Its popularity exploded.

Macro chocolate pieces. honolulumagazine.

Chocolate became so popular and in such a high demand that it led to the growth of the slave market in the Americas. Production of cocoa beans was mostly manual, as was the output of the sugar cane necessary to sweeten it into the mouth-watering dessert. Missionaries traveled from Europe to the Americas to Christianize the people who had been turned into slaves. Europeans grew wealthy from the precious chocolate and sugar trade that grew on the backs of slave labor. Moreover, physicians believed that they had discovered a panacea for many of the illnesses that plagued people: chocolate. Perhaps that explains why in Harry Potter, chocolate has medicinal qualities and is eaten by people who are sick or are recovering from a traumatic event.