Scientists looking for traces of the unique combination of compounds found in cacao (cocoa is called cacao until it has been fermented and dried just to confuse us all) and at symbols used by ancient Mayan civilisations to represent cacao on pots have found examples dating back as far as 1500BC in the areas of Central America such as Honduras, Mexico, Belize and Guatemala.
Probably the first people who cut open the ripe cacao pods to reveal the lumpy pale seeds inside encased in a bright white fruity pulp sucked the lychee-like pulp and spat the precious beans out. People still do this when visiting plantations – raw cacao beans are bitter, astringent and nothing like the chocolate that we know and love; not promising at all.
The real history of the culinary use of cacao began in Mesoamerica, far away from where the first trees seem to have originated in Venezuela and Peru. These Mesoamerican discoverers of chocolate domesticated the trees and started to combine roasted and ground beans with vanilla, herbs, petals, chillies, honey and so on to make a variety of drinks.
Traditional communities in these areas would roast the beans over an open fire and grind to a rough sticky paste with flour, honey to sweeten and cinnamon or chilli as a spice. Rolled into balls or flattened into discs and left to dry, this paste was melted in hot water and agitated to make a thick hot drink.
These drinks are still the main way that cacao is used throughout Latin America today and link directly back to how the Mayan and Aztec ruling classes drank chocolate.
When the Spanish invaders arrived in the 16th century they recognised the value of cacao and within a short time the Mayan drink was tasted in Europe for the first time. The habit of drinking chocolate was gradually adopted in Spain before spreading throughout most of Europe. The Spaniards married cacao and sugar for the first time – pre-Hispanic cooks tended to use honey. Drinking chocolate was associated with high social standing – an exotic luxury for the cognoscenti.
* Information from the very excellent book "The New Taste of Chocolate – a cultural and natural history of cacao with recipes" by the very knowledgeable and passionate cook and author Maricel Presilla.