The origins of chocolate

Intermediate level reading activity.

There are various activities and English exercises after the passage below.

The origins of chocolate can be traced back to the ancient Maya and Aztec civilisations in Central America who first enjoyed a much-prized spicy drink 'chocolatl', made from roasted cocoa beans. Chocolate was exclusively for drinking until the early Victorian times when a technique for making solid 'eating' chocolate was devised. Throughout its history, whether as a cocoa or drinking chocolate beverage or confectionery treat, chocolate has always been a much sought after food.

The story of cocoa begins with cocoa trees, which grew wild in the tropical rain forests of the Amazon basin and other tropical areas in Central and South America for thousands of years. It was the Maya Indians, an ancient people whose descendants still live in Central America, who first discovered the delights of cocoa as long ago as 600 AD. 'Chocolatl' was consumed in large quantities by the Aztecs as a luxury drink. The Aztec version of this popular drink was described as 'finely ground, soft, foamy, reddish, bitter with chilli water, aromatic flowers, vanilla and wild bee honey.' The Yucatan Peninsula, a tropical area in what is now Southern Mexico, where wild cocoa trees grew, was where the Maya lived. They harvested cocoa beans from the rain forest trees, then cleared areas of lowland forest to grow their own cocoa trees in the first known cocoa plantations.

The Maya Indians and the Aztecs had recognised the value of cocoa beans both as an ingredient for their special drink and as currency for hundreds of years before cocoa was brought to Europe. An early explorer visiting Central America found that 4 cocoa beans could buy a pumpkin; 10 could buy a rabbit; 100 were needed to buy a slave.

The Aztecs were an ancient nomadic people who founded a great city in the Valley of Mexico in 1325 - Tenochtitlan. Because of their dry climate the Aztecs were unable to grow cocoa trees themselves so they had to obtain supplies of cocoa beans from 'tribute' or trade. 'Tribute' was a form of taxation paid by provinces conquered by the Aztecs in wars. Their rich prosperous capital city, and its culture, were destroyed by the Spanish in 1521, and later occupied and renamed, Mexico City.

Christopher Columbus is said to have brought the first cocoa beans back to Europe from his fourth visit to the 'New World' between 1502 and 1504. However the many other treasures on board his galleons were far more exciting so the humble cocoa beans were neglected. It was his fellow explorer, the Spanish Conquistador Don Hernan Cortes, who first realised the commercial value of the beans. He brought cocoa beans back to Spain and very gradually the custom of drinking chocolate spread across Europe. When he returned to Spain in 1528, he loaded his galleons with cocoa beans and equipment to make drinking chocolate. Soon 'chocolate' became a fashionable drink enjoyed by the rich in Spain. It took nearly a century for the news of cocoa and chocolate to spread across Europe, as the Spanish kept it a closely guarded secret.

When chocolate finally reached England in the 1650s it was a drink for the wealthy due to the high import duties on cocoa beans. Chocolate cost the equivalent of 50-75 pence a pound (approximately 400g), when the pound sterling was worth considerably more than it is today. But gradually it became more freely available. The first London Chocolate House was opened in 1657 by a Frenchman who produced the first advertisement for the chocolate drinks to be seen in London: "In Bishopgate St, in Queen's Head Alley, at a Frenchman's house, is an excellent West Indian drink called Chocolate to be sold, where you may have it ready at any time and also unmade at reasonable rates."

Fashionable chocolate houses were soon opened where the people could meet their friends to enjoy various rich chocolate drinks while discussing the serious political, social and business affairs of the day or gossiping. As the demand for cocoa grew, cocoa plantations were started in the West Indies, the Far East and Africa and the price of cocoa beans gradually began to fall as greater quantities came onto the market. However it was not until 1853 that significant reductions in the import duties were made and, with the Industrial Revolution making transport easier, chocolate became available to a large percentage of the population. Chocolate was exclusively for drinking until early Victorian times when a technique was perfected for making solid 'eating' chocolate.


Pre-reading discussion
  • Do you like chocolate?
  • What type of chocolate do you like - milk chocolate or plain chocolate?
  • What is the difference? Are there any other types of chocolate?
  • Where does cocoa come from?
  • Do you know where/when chocolate was first enjoyed?
Quick reading/scanning

Scan the text and make notes on the references to these dates:

  • 600 A.D.
  • 1325
  • 1502
  • 1504
  • 1521
  • 1528
  • 1650s
  • 1657
  • 1853

What does A.D. stand for? What is a more modern way of expressing this meaning? (C.E. = Common Era and B.C.E. = Before Common Era)


What new words can you find in the text? can you work out the meaning of new words from the context?

True or false? (According to the passage.)

  1. Chocolate was eaten as a solid in South America
  2. Chocolate was later consumed as a drink in Europe.
  3. Cocoa trees were grown in plantations by the Aztecs.
  4. Chocolate was first consumed by the Mayan people in 600A.D.
  5. Chocolate was consumed a great deal by all Aztec people whenever they wished.
  6. The chocolate drunk by Mayan people was sweet and had an attractive smell.
  7. Cocoa beans were the only form of money that the Aztec and Mayan people used.
  8. The Spanish invaded the Aztec and Mayan kingdoms.
  9. The Mayan capital Tenochtitlan was destroyed by the Spanish.
  10. People did not feel that the cocoa been was important when Columbus brought it back to Spain.
  11. The Spanish were not keen to tell people how to find the cocoa beans.
  12. Chocolate was very expensive when it first came to England.
  13. There were three reasons why chocolate became more easily available to
    everyone in Britain.


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