The history of the cocoa plant can be traced as far back as 1500 B.C. or earlier, to the Mesoamerican region (a region and culture area in the Americas, extending approximately from central Mexico to Honduras and Nicaragua, within which a number of pre-Columbian societies flourished before the Spanish colonization of the Americas in the 15th and 16th centuries).
Considered by the Toltecs as a gift from "Quetzalcoatl" (the feathered serpent deity of the wind), it is believed that these nomads took the pods along with them as a source of energy and liquid, and in this manner introduced them to Central America and South Mexico.
When the Aztecs conquered the Toltecs in the 12th Century, they took over the cultivation of cocoa and even used the bean as currency. It was the Aztecs also who started brewing an unsweetened cocoa drink served during festivities and religious rituals and celebrations. They called it 'xocoatl' from the Aztec words 'xococ' (sour, bitter, aromatic) and 'atl' (water) - a mixture of roasted & ground cocoa beans, water, maize meal, chilli peppers, vanilla and Annatto (the reddish pulp which surrounds the seed of the achiote tree). The drink was believed to bestow wisdom and knowledge on humans as well as immunising them against fatigue.
The Mayans also held cocoa in high regard and even worshipped a cocoa god: Ek Chuah.
Christopher Columbus showed little interest when he came in contact with cocoa for the first time during his fourth voyage in 1502. However, when Hernan Cortes landed in Mexico in 1519 he was welcomed by the Aztecs with a gift of cocoa; he was particularly intrigued by the cocoa bean's economic worth as a trading currency and consequently bought it back with him to Spain in 1528.
Initially there was little appreciation for cocoa in Europe until the idea to sweeten the bitter brew with cane sugar or honey suddenly made the drink very popular. By the mid 16th Century cocoa had become a fashionable drink reserved only for the Spanish Court, but from there it quickly spread to other European nobilities who would substitute the chilli peppers with flavourings such as cinnamon, nutmeg, aniseed, nuts or orange blossom.
It is believed that cocoa first came to England in 1650 and, unlike in other European countries, was sold by many small traders to anyone who could afford it. Then, in 1657, a Frenchman inaugurated the very first chocolate shop in London. The name of the store was the Coffee Mill and Tobacco Roll, and the chocolate sold there was so expensive that only wealthy patrons could afford to purchase it. Due to the high price of the cocoa and spices, recipes were simplified, and it is said that an Englishman was the first to combine cocoa and milk in 1726.
From then on cocoa plantations were established around the world, and with the onset of the Industrial Revolution, mass production of chocolate became reality.
Francois-Louis Cailler opened the first chocolate-producing plant in Switzerland in 1819 where he refined the chocolate paste and created the first chocolate bar, which would, however, still have a rough, coarse structure. The creamy texture of bars is believed to have been an invention of the Dutchman Coenrad van Houten in 1828, who set about reducing the fat content in chocolate by removing most of the cocoa butter from the bean and making cocoa powder. It was quickly realised that the cocoa butter, when added to ground cocoa beans and sugar, produced a less crumbly and much smoother paste and so modern chocolate, as we know it today, was invented.