The history of chocolate has deep ties to Central America, where cacao is a native and sacred plant, ingrained in legend. The bean has been cultivated for more than 3,000 years in Costa Rica, after being mysteriously transported from the AmazonBasin where it originated.
Costa Rican chocolatier and former history teacher Julio Fernández, of Sibú chocolate shop in the western San José suburb of Escazú, notes that cacao is one of the country’s few exports native to Costa Rica.
For example, bananas originated in Asia, sugarcane in India and coffee in Africa. In Mesoamerica, the Olmec or the Maya invented the idea of fermenting cacao in an elaborate drying, roasting and grinding process. Cacao paste was mixed with water, chili peppers and other ingredients to create a sacred drink called xocoatl (xoco means bitter and atl means water in Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs).
In Aztec legend, cacao was brought to Earth by a careless god, Quetzalcoatl. The other gods were furious that he had shared what was previously reserved for only them and punished him for his transgression.
In Costa Rican indigenous Chibcha legend, the creator god Sibú used cacao to spread the seeds of creation through the Earth. A trickster god killed two gods who were holding the seeds and then stole and ate them. Where he buried the murdered gods, a calabash and cacao tree sprouted.
Sibú made the trickster god drink a mixture of cacao in a calabash gourd. When the trickster god drank the chocolate drink, his stomach exploded, spreading the creation seeds around the world.
Cacao is still an important part of indigenous rituals. In northern Costa Rica, the Maleku wash the bodies of their dead with the spicy chocolate drink. The Bribrí use the cacao mixture in death rituals, washing their hands in it after a death and bathing widows in the drink, and also drink chocolate at births, according to Fernández.
Cacao beans were used as currency for centuries. The Aztecs often extracted cacao as payment from conquered tribes.
Christopher Columbus saw natives diving after dropped beans and decided to try the chocolate drink, thinking it must be very valuable, but was disappointed. A few decades later, Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés was less quick to judge. He noticed the drink’s properties as a stimulant and also thought it might benefit from some sugar.
The drink made its way back to Spain by the 16th century. The Spanish added sugar and cinnamon to the beverage, and because all the ingredients were so expensive to import, chocolate became a status symbol, just as it was in the New World.
It took about 100 years for the drink to move from Spain to the rest of Europe. Rising European demand caused colonial plantations of cacao and sugar to sprout up in Africa and Trinidad. Different forms of cacao plants were grown in different places; the forastero plant was grown in Africa and now in Brazil, while the trinitario was produced in Trinidad, according to Fernández.
The criollo plant native to Central America accounts for only 1 percent of the world’s cacao, and is considered the finest variety. The plant mixes easily with other kinds of cacao and is usually blended with other strains.
Around the time of the industrial revolution, chocolate changed from being a luxury of the elites to the opiate of the masses. Swiss Daniel Peter and German Henri Nestlé introduced condensed milk to chocolate in 1875, forming the “milk chocolate” mix so popular today, according to Nestlé’s Web site. A few years later, Rodolphe Lindt of Switzerland invented a process that smoothed cocoa butter out over 72 hours, removing the solid shards of cacao from the mix and paving the way for the creation of the chocolate bar.
All of these innovations permitted the rapid production of chocolate, which was soon integrated into many facets of ordinary lives. Chocolate was even distributed in soldiers’ rations in World War I.
According to Fernández, there has recently been a backlash against massproduced chocolate, and interest in finer, homemade chocolates produced by smaller companies has increased. The focus has gone back to cacao content, something that was ignored when chocolate manufacturers were trying to pump in as many other ingredients as possible to keep the costs of importing cacao down.
No matter what its history, chocolate remains a treat and a popular gift to honor lovers and friends alike. Ticos can be proud that some of its earliest roots can be traced to Costa Rican soil.
Sources: Journal of American Folklore, www.rawcacao.com, www.hersheyarchives.org, www.nestle.com.
Get Gourmet Chocolate
Sibú chocolates are handmade from Costa Rican-grown cacao and come in flavors such as spice, ginger, caramel and espresso. They can be found at Holtermann & Compañía in Llorente de Tibás (2297-1212), a kilometer east of La Nación, and at Boutique Kiosco SJO San José in Barrio Amón, 400 meters north of Morazán Park (2258-1829). Individual chocolates cost about ¢600 ($1.10). A box of nine chocolates costs about ¢5,500 ($10), and a box of 16 costs about $18.
Giacomin gourmet chocolate shops can be found in downtown San José, 75 meters north of the central post office; in Los Yoses, on the east side of the Auto Mercado; in Bello Horizonte de Escazú, 250 meters east of the Toycos; and in Heredia at Plaza Bratsi, next to the Universal store. Chocolates may be ordered online at www.chocolatesdelmundo.com, or call 2288-3381. A box of 26 assorted chocolates costs about $14.
La Chocolatería sells five kinds of gourmet chocolates: organic, white, milk, 70 percent cacao and semisweet. A box of about 10 chocolates costs about ¢4,700 ($8.50). The store has locations in Escazú, next to TGIF, and in Curridabat, on the old road to Tres Ríos, next to Fresh Market. Call 2289-9637 for more information.
The Amazilia women’s cooperative sells chocolate from a farm in the Caribbean-slope town of Guápiles, in Pueblo Nuevo. Organic cacao grown on the farm is used to make chocolate in flavors such as ginger and macadamia, as well as dark chocolate. The product is sold in quantities costing about $1.50 each. For directions to the farm, call 8363-1233.
The Association of Indigenous Women of Talamanca sells organic chocolate in Puerto Viejo, on the southern Caribbean coast. One product is 80 percent cacao while the other, which is made into smaller individual candies, is a mix of 100 percent organic sugar and cacao. The price is about ¢1,200 ($2.20) per 100 grams. The association also sells pure organic cacao, used to make the hot and spicy drinks that have been passed down for centuries. You can find the chocolate at Hotel Casa Verde in Puerto Viejo and also at Aztec commercial center. For more information, call 2711-1604.