Here's a brief timeline of chocolate, its people and its travels:
1500 bc - OLMEC - the "mother culture" of Mesoamerica knew a good thing when they found it in their forests. Chocolate traces were found on the Olmec's ceramic pots, suggesting chocolate as we know it originated with these dynamic traders, astronomers, travelers & artisans.
1000 bc - 1200 ad - MAYA - The artistic Maya used cacao beans as currency, and they were the first to master the process of fermenting and roasting the beans. They used chiles and vanilla among other spices to flavor their chocolate paste. On the dark side, they mixed chocolate with human blood to sacrifice to gods on top of their magnificent temples. Drink up.
1500's - AZTEC - Fierce and powerful, the Aztec built their golden temples on the profits of their cacao empire. Kings and noblemen shared the frothy drink worthy of the gods. Like the Maya, chocolate was associated with sacrificial rites. Occasionally a human heart was cut out of the body and offered up - still beating. Montezuma famously drank golden goblets of cacao before he visited his harem.
1500 - 1600's - SPANISH & EUROPEAN - When the Spanish Conquistadores arrived near Montezuma's city walls, he mistook their leader, Cortez, for Quetzelcoatl, the beloved god of cacao. Bad call. This case of mistaken identity cost Montezuma his palace, his empire, his gold, his chocolate, and finally, his life. But the legend lives on. Cacao's official latin name later became theobroma cacao - FOOD OF THE GODS.
1600 - 1700's - SPANISH, ITALIAN & ENGLISH - Chocolate was experimental - monks were stirring it in Spain, sailors were chewing it on trans-Atlantic voyages, settlers of new world Mexico were mixing it with their other crops....like sugar cane. Now there's a good idea: Chocolate & Sugar. A beverage of sweetened cacao (also called cocoa - both words derived from the Aztec language) caught on and soon became an export from the New World back to Europe.
1650 -1700's - EUROPEAN - The culinary good times rolled into Europe with chocolate, coffee, tea and sugar. Aristocratic ladies sipped sweetened hot chocolate for breakfast; pastry chefs were experimenting with chocolate paste in elaborate royal kitchens. London opened the first "chocolate house", a place to drink chocolate and discuss the events of the day. Chocolate was on fire...or at least close enough to a fire for some lucky chef to invent chocolate cake and chocolate fondue. Thank you, chef.
1800's - FRENCH, EUROPEAN & AMERICAN - Chocolate souffle and Chocolate French Buttercream were invented, along with the Sachertorte and the Dobos Torte. This was the golden age of chocolate's flavor pairings: chocolate & vanilla, chocolate & almond, chocolate & rum, chocolate & fruit. With the machine power of the Industrial Age, chocolate then met a pipeline to wide distribution, advertising and a very wide world of adoring people.
1900's - THE WORLD - Chcolate became a sensation & a global business - harvested in the tropics, mass-produced in Europe & America and sold around the world. This is an era of tycoons and candy bars - Cadbury, Hershey's & Mars to name a few. With mass-production comes conformity, good in many ways but also restrictive. Europe developed a fine hand-made chocolate tradition that co-existed with machine-made chocolate. The wide availability of machine-made chocolate created an appetite for new chocolate exploration....and a new growth business...artisan chocolates.
2000's - EUROPE, AMERICA & JAPAN - Artisan chocolatiers create hand-made confections prized for the freshness of their ingredients, their artistic presentation and their high-quality, complex flavorings. Sales of mass-produced chocolates are still strong around the world, and artisans continue to develop the value of hand-made confections. New interest in terroir (the effect of the soil and growing conditions on the flavor), dark chocolate, health benefits, sustainable farming and innovative artistic expressions dominate the current chocolate climate, with the biggest multi-national chocolates seeking to increase market share of both mass-produced and artisan chocolates.