03 Nov 2017

Hot chocolate, from the Maya to the present day

by Simona Vitagliano
That chocolate is an ancient pleasure there is no doubt: we find it in many traditional recipes, which are rooted in times (and sometimes even territories) very far.

But perhaps we are talking about something much more remote in the millennia of what one might think. Also because this journey back in time must get … up to the Maya!

When chocolate was a currency

The first Italian to taste a cocoa-flavored drink, enriched with some spices, seems to have been just Christopher Columbus, when he landed in the Americas. More precisely, everything happened during his fourth trip, when our fellow villager landed in Honduras, in South America. The taste bewitched him to the point of bringing the seeds of this extraordinary plant to Fernando and Isabella of Spain, which, however, apparently, they did not show the same interest in this new food coming from afar. Indeed, a legend would have it that Columbus wrote a letter to the King of Spain, to anticipate the discovery of this drink, called by local locals “bitter water”, which refreshed the army, giving it greater resistance to fatigue.

But, wanting to go even further in time, that sweet and particular drink from where it came out?

In fact, the journey to be made is much longer and more compelling: we must go back to the time of 1000 BC, to the pre-Columbian civilizations of the Maya and Aztecs that populated central and southern America. It was the tradition of these people, in fact, to drink the Xocoatl, a drink, which took its name from Xoco (chocolate) and atl (water), seasoned with some spices, such as chili.

Indeed, it seems that at that time cocoa was such an important and valuable plant to be considered of great value: its beans were used as currency, just as if it were money. The Aztec economy was based on cocoa beans, ancient precursors of our coins!

Returning to more recent times, if the “mission” of Columbus to introduce cocoa in Europe failed, how did this plant reach us and finally conquer our palates?

The name to be cited is that of Hernà¡n Cortés, contemporary Spanish leader of Colombo, who conquered and subjugated the Aztec Empire to the Kingdom of Spain.

In fact, the story of his deeds and his success is somewhat controversial: although many historians speak of a genocide that took place against this ancient civilization, a legend has it that the commander arrived in Mexico with a reduced army and that the his victory took place thanks to a series of favorable circumstances. An ancient Aztec myth, in fact, told of the return to Earth of one of the most important deities, Quetzacoatl, which would have happened with a “shining army”. The Spanish army of Cortés, thus, arrived from the sea with soldiers protected by shining helmets decorated with a feather, was seen as a sort of messenger of God, who was identified precisely in the person of the leader. And that’s why among historians there is also someone who speaks of a conquest of the Aztec territories rather spontaneous and peaceful.

At the end of all this, Cortés discovered the use of cocoa beans as a currency, starting to take an interest in this plant and importing it into Europe as a food product.

The Kingdom of Spain, however, maintained the exclusivity for a long time: in our country, in fact, we had to wait 1600 to taste the seeds of this plant.
At the beginning of the 19th century, then, in England, the first tablet was made by Pierre Paul Caffarel, who began to benefit from technological progress by starting a large-scale production. At the end of the same century, Rudolph Lindt invented the process called concaggio, which mixes chocolate to obtain a better product, homogeneous and free of alkalic acids.


Today chocolate, and in particular hot chocolate, is the symbol of the arrival of winter: the image of a lit fireplace and a steaming mug in the hands is practically omnipresent among the social message boards of the whole world, in periods particularly cold of the year (and we at Gambrinus know it well …!). In addition, scientific studies have also shown his positive intervention on mood and personal gratification, not to mention that serving spicy melted chocolate is a privilege reserved for a few … forgetting that 3,000 years ago pre-Columbian civilizations had already learned to enjoy this kind of delicacy.