How Europe went cuckoo for cocoa

Sacred to the Maya in the New World, cocoa took on a new life when it hit the shores of the Old World. Lauded by royalty, denounced by the church, and embraced in the kitchen, chocolate became the most fashionable drink in all of Europe.

In May 1502, Christopher Columbus set out on his fourth voyage to the New World. From this trip, he brought back many things to Europe: gold, silver, and a plain-looking cargo of beans. The Spaniards weren’t impressed and largely overlooked them. At that time no one could have predicted just how much these unassuming beans would end up transforming Spanish and European cuisine.

Two short centuries later, the capital of the Spanish Empire was overrun by chocolate and consuming more than five tons every year. According to contemporary records, there was not a street in Madrid where chocolate could not be bought and drunk. How did the humble cacao seed of a South American tree become the latest craze in Europe?

The Maya were among the first to fall under chocolate’s spell. The Madrid Codex, preserved in the Museum of the Americas in Madrid, Spain, contains the first written records of its consumption. The codex confirms that the Aztec believed that cacao beans were divine and seen as no less than a physical manifestation of Quetzalcoatl, god of wisdom. (See also: Chocolate gets its sweet history rewritten.)

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