Hot Cocoa has been around since the year 500, when Mayans and the Aztec cultures introduced it into their diet.
First believed to have medicinal purposes, and then consumed simply for pleasure by these early civilizations, the Spanish picked it up when they came into traveled to what is now Mexico, with intent to conquer, and promptly spread this mouthwatering treat back to Europe. It spread rapidly, and even the King at the time (King Charles V) couldn’t find anything he’d rather drink.
The drink was originally made with coca seeds and chili peppers, a spicy alternative to the sweet Hot Chocolate we know today. Next came “chocolatl” (xocolatl), which was a chocolate drink flavored with vanilla and various other spices. The great leader Montezuma was purported to drink 50 cups a day, while his court somehow made it up to 2,000. Chocolatl was said to be an acquired taste, bitter and spicy.
The Europeans did not take a liking to the chocolate immediately; but several years after Cortez returned to Spain, the drink took off, gaining popularity slowly but surely. Eventually, it was so valued (partly because of it’s irreplicable taste, and partly because it only grew in South America) that is was used as a dowry for new brides. Around 1600, sweet hot chocolate was developed- and just like that, hot chocolate was a luxury item among the nobility of Spain. When the very first Chocolate House opened in 1657, hot cocoa cost 50-75 pence a pound. It has been argues that these Chocolate Houses were the origin for the Coffee Shops that are so popular today.
Milk chocolate emerged in the late 17th century, when Hans Sloane, the president of the Royal College Of Physicians, visited Jamiaca and declared the bitter chocolate ‘nauseous,’ unless mixed with milk. When he returned to England, he brought the recipe with him. However, ‘chocolate’ did not mean ‘solid chocolate,’ like the bars of today, until 1828, when Coenraad Johannes van Houten developed a cocoa powder producing machine in the Netherlands.
Although modern-day Americans use the terms ‘hot chocolate’ and ‘hot cocoa’ interchangeably, some civilizations find the distinction quite important. The main difference between the two is whether or not cocoa butter is present, which significantly increases the fat content, while cocoa is mostly ground cocoa beans. There are many different ways to make hot chocolate- dark, semisweet, or bittersweet chocolate can be used, chopped into small pieces and stirred with milk and sugar, or cocoa powder can be stirred into water or milk, and sweetened/spiced to taste.
In the United States today, the drink is most popular in an instant form, often sold in single serving packets. This is much sweeter than the original hot chocolate of the ancient civilizations. Typically, it is viewed as a snack or desert and rarely drunk with meals, and considered a comfort food, to be enjoyed with marshmallows and cold weather. In Mexico, the most popular form of hot chocolate is cocoa with cinnamon, which is significantly closer to the Mesoamerican civilizations’ drink, although there are variations; among them, vanilla, spice, sugar, and semi-sweet. In Europe, hot chocolate is often served very thickly.
In Southern Spain, for example, the national favorite snack is undoubtedly “churros y chocolat,” which consists of a thick, lightly sweetened, often dark chocolate drink and long sticks of fried dough dipped in cinnamon sugar. Or, dipped in the hot chocolate sometime. This is often enjoyed as ‘the working-man’s breakfast.’ The Netherlands and France also view hot chocolate as a breakfast item, although their version is significantly less think and rich. A favorite in Belgium is called “warme chocolade” or “chocolat chaud,” which is a cup of steamed white milk, as well as a small bowl of bittersweet chocolate chips, to dissolve in the milk. More varied recipes exist around the world, from frozen hot chocolate to mocha hot chocolate, and from candy cane cocoa to hot chocolate with nuts or rum.