Cocoa has its origins in the upper Amazon basin and many believe we can trace our love affair with chocolate as far back as 2,500 years ago. There is evidence of Mayan use as far back as the 5th Century AD and we know that the Aztecs used cocoa as a means of payment as well as the ingredient for a "drink of the gods". In fact, the Mayans allowed only society’s elite to consume cocoa and as they migrated into the northern regions of South America, they established the earliest known plantations (AD 600).
In 1544, Mayan nobles visited Prince Philip of Spain, bringing jars of cocoa, mixed and ready to drink where it quickly became fashionable. Spain and Portugal did not export their favourite drink to the rest of Europe for nearly a century by which time it had become traditional to add cane sugar and vanilla to make a sweeter beverage.
Slowly, cocoa, as a beverage, conquered the royal courts and noble houses of Europe. The first chocolate house was opened in 1657 in London, although the proprietor was a Frenchman. Because so much of the cocoa bean consists of cocoa butter, the drink was thick and bitter bearing little, if any resemblance, to the hot chocolate we might drink today.
In 1838, Conrad Van Houten invented a revolutionary new process – the cocoa press. His press improved the quality of chocolate by reducing its cocoa butter content thereby producing a smoother consistency. Only 20 years later, the first chocolate bar was produced and for the remainder of the late 19th century, new and innovative chocolate products were launched to an appreciative public. From bonbons, to heart-shaped boxes for Valentine’s Day, to chocolate brownies, to milk chocolate – our taste for chocolate is well and truly developed.
In the mid-19th century, cocoa cultivation began in West Africa on the island of Principe and the neighbouring island of Sao Tome, and from there it spread to the African continent. In Ghana, the members of the Basle Mission successfully promoted its cultivation and many small and medium farmers develop this country into one of this world’s most important producers.