Journal / Inspiration

3 things you need to know about the history of chocolate.

29 Mar, 2024

This week I had the pleasure of hosting a conversation with Spencer Hyman, founder of Cocoa Runners, one of my favourite brand ‘finds’ of recent years. Spencer is passionate about not just supporting delicious, sustainable, ethical chocolate brands, but sharing how to truly savour chocolate too. Here are a few of his favourite facts along with a step by step guide to getting real joy from every bite.

29 Mar, 2024

1. We may owe the discovery of cocoa beans to the lure of drink!

5000 years ago, the Mesoamericans were getting drunk on cocoa pulp. When the cocoa pod was opened, its pulp unexpectedly fermented. These intoxicating effects were enjoyed, and later civilisations (the Mayans and the Aztecs) built on this and grew larger scale societies. The fact that the fermenting pulp turned the bitter cocoa seeds into cocoa beans is a by-product of getting intoxicated.


2. We have a Pope to thank for our introduction to drinking chocolate:

When instructed to avoid animal-based products on Saints days, Wednesdays and Fridays, the Jesuits secured papal endorsement to recommend drinking chocolate as a nutritious option to support the congregation during periods of ‘fasting’.

3. And we may have beards to thank for today’s chocolate bars

Unfortunately, cocoa butter does not dissolve well in water or milk. And if it gets stuck in consumers' beards – as it did in 18th and 19th century Netherlands, where beards were BIG(!) - this congealing drinking chocolate created major problems, especially in cold winters! So in the 1820s the father and son team of Van Houten came up with a partial solution: the cocoa press.

This invention “pressed out” much of the cocoa butter, leaving less of it to congeal in their fellow Dutchmen’s beards. They also realised that by washing the remaining chocolate cake in an alkali solution (now called ‘dutching’), they could reduce some astringency and bitterness.

Then, a certain Joseph Fry discovered that, by adding ground cocoa beans he could create a stable chocolate block using the excess cocoa butter. Armed with this innovation, in 1847 he launched the world’s first chocolate bar, setting off a revolution in which we now eat chocolate, rather than drink it.

How to truly savour chocolate in 5 steps:

  1. Break a piece of chocolate from your bar, hold to your ear and break again. Listen for the clarity of the snap, which is a sign of a good blend.
  2. Then, hold the chunk of chocolate to your nose. What can you smell? How would you describe it to a friend?
  3. Hold your nose and breathe through your mouth for 20-30 seconds.
  4. Then, keeping your fingers over your nostrils, drop the chunk of chocolate onto your tongue and breathe through your mouth. What can you ‘taste’ this way? What textures do you observe?
  5. Finally, release your nostrils and taste as you breathe fully. You should experience a flooding of flavour that enables you to taste and observe complexity more fully.
  6. Pay attention to the chunk as you slowly savour and chew. Take your time too.

That’s it. You’re a connoisseur! And eating and enjoying chocolate this way can be transformational. Spencer’s final top tip? Share bars with a friend or family member whenever you can, as it’s always fascinating to compare what each of you tastes. Always have 2-3 bars on the go at any time to compare and contrast flavours.

And treat chocolate as what it should be; an immersion in a craft rather than a quick sugar fix.

To learn more about Cocoa Runners and their mission to transform how we experience chocolate as well as the lives of the people that make it, HEAD HERE.

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