Chocolate as Medicine

Pietro Longhi, The Morning Chocolate, Venice, 1775-1780

Pietro Longhi, The Morning Chocolate, Venice, 1775-1780

The Spanish conquistadors adopted cacao beans as currency to trade with the Maya. However, the beans traveled back to Spain for a different purpose.

European medical theories of the 15th and 16th centuries were rather primitive. The Native Americans had a much more advanced system based on their extensive knowledge and use of plants that cured certain conditions. When word of the New World’s miraculous plants reached King Philip II of Spain, he sent his Royal Physician, Francisco Hernandez, to Mexico. Upon his return to Spain, Hernandez included cacao beans in his bag of cures.

Hernandez, in a letter to the king, stated that the cacao bean was nourishing and could cure fevers, “When pepper was added, it had an agreeable taste and warmed the stomach and perfumed the breath.” It would fight poisons and alleviate intestinal pains. He also mentioned that it excited the sexual appetite.

The cacao bean was presented to European royalty in 1544. The Dominican Friars, who were among the first and most energetic missionaries in the Americas, took a delegation of Maya nobles to visit Prince Philip in Spain. Among the gifts they brought were bowls of chocolate. This was opening day for chocolate in Europe. But it would be forty years before regular shipments started to arrive.

The original problem with chocolate was that it was bitter, it didn’t have a great smell, and the Europeans did not see an obvious potential for the cocoa bean.  But eventually, they learned to dry it, ferment it, roast it, and mix it with various things, including vanilla. And then, of course, they learned to add sugar and, later, milk. Through a very complex technology, they created a food that appeals to almost every human being on the planet, and is totally different from its original form.

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