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Chocolate treasures from ancient civilizations to today

January 31, 1997

(CNN) -- Craved, savored and given as a symbol of one's love. Yet, so common it can be purchased for 50 cents.

This treasured, as well as commonplace item is chocolate.

Originally consumed as a spicy drink, chocolate can be traced back to the ancient Mayan and Aztec civilizations in Mexico, Central and South America where the Theobroma cacao tree, or cocoa tree, grows wild in tropical rain forests.

Solid chocolate as we know it today wasn't created until the late 1800's in Europe.

Hundreds of years before the Europeans got into the act, the Mayans and the Aztecs treasured the cacao beans, or later to be called cocoa, for both their value as an ingredient for their special drink and as a currency.

Their drink was made from ground cocoa beans. Since sugar was unknown to the Aztecs, they flavored the ground beans with spices, chili peppers and corn meal. Some say it was frothed and eaten with a spoon.

The Aztec emperor, Montezuma, was said to drink chocolate that was thick as honey and dyed red.

He liked it so much that he drank 50 goblets of it every day, and when he was done, he threw the golden goblets away. They weren't valuable to him, but the chocolate was.

Christopher Colombus is said to have brought the first cocoa beans back to Europe between 1502-1504. However, with far more exciting treasures on board, the beans were neglected.

It was his fellow explorer, the Spain's Hernando Cortez, who realized a potential commercial value in the beans.

Cortez, upon conquering the Aztec emperor and his people, sampled the drink, but didn't care for it. However, he did take some beans back to Spain where it was made into an agreeable drink by substituting sugar and vanilla for the chili peppers.

This beverage was kept a secret from other European countries for nearly a century. And when the British captured a Spanish vessel loaded with the cocoa beans in 1587, the cargo was destroyed as useless.

During the 17th century, the chocolate beverage quickly became the fashionable drink all over Europe, but not without opposition. Some condemned it as an evil drink. Frederick III of Prussia prohibited it in his realm.

In the countries that did accept the drink, it was limited to the wealthy because of its high price. The London chocolate houses became the trendy meeting places where the elite London society savored this new luxury beverage.

The first chocolate house opened in London in 1657, advertising "this excellent West India drink."

As cocoa plantations spread to the tropics in both hemispheres by the 19th century, the increased production lowered the price of the cocoa beans and chocolate became a popular and affordable beverage.

Chocolate Bar

In England, the heavy import duties which had made chocolate a luxury for the wealthy were reduced in 1853, allowing a number of cocoa and drinking chocolate manufacturers to get into the business.

Chocolate was still exclusively for drinking until around 1830 when solid eating chocolate was developed by J. S. Fry and Sons, a British chocolate maker. Then in the 1870's, Swiss manufacturers added milk creating the first milk chocolate.

Industrialization in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have since made chocolate a food for the masses. But despite its availablilty, people continue to hold onto the notion of chocolate as a special treat.

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