The ancient Maya civilization’s many achievements include a written language, advanced mathematics, sophisticated surgery, and astrological calculations that continue to astound scholars… and the list goes on.
But for many people, the Maya’s greatest achievement is something loved all over the world today—chocolate.
The Maya had been using cacao beans to make a beverage called Xocoatl for millennia. Cacao fueled the growth of the Maya empire and was even used as money. In fact, the Maya’s numerical system, represented in dots and bars, is said to come from using cacao beans and lines drawn in the sand to calculate figures.
By the time the Spanish arrived in the 1500s, the use of cacao had spread to the Aztecs, who called the drink chocolatl, and believed drinking it gave wisdom.
In 1519 Hernando Cortes noted that the Aztec ruler, Montezuma, drank nothing else but chocolatl and would down several goblets of the foamy drink before entering his harem. So began chocolate’s reputation as an aphrodisiac, a legacy that is still alive and well in Valentine’s Day gifts today.
When Cortes presented chocolate to King Charles V in 1528, Spain began cultivating cacao in her overseas colonies and closely guarded the secrets of processing it. Only the rich could afford this delicious drink, which was also used as a tasty medicinal remedy.
By the mid-1700s the Dutch developed more economical ways to produce chocolate, and the invention of the cocoa press in 1828 and mass production made chocolate available to almost everyone.
By 1765 chocolate was being produced in the American colonies, and the Cadbury Brothers introduced solid chocolate for eating at an English exhibition in 1849. Soon the world couldn’t get enough of the Maya’s “food of the gods.”
In 1876 the Swiss company Nestle began producing the milk chocolate bars we know and love today, and the Swiss remain the largest per capita consumers of chocolate in the world.
For the Swiss and the rest of us chocolate is a treat. For thousands of Belize’s Maya families, it is life itself.
Organic cacao has become one of Belize’s most viable, environmentally friendly, and sustainable crops and is the backbone of small Maya villages who continue to cultivate high quality cacao that is a direct descendant of local genetic strains developed by their ancestors thousands of years ago.
Today, we know that chocolate contains compounds that are said to boost health, beauty, and the nervous system by reducing stress and mitigating the aging effect of certain free radicals. It is also said to stimulate a chemical reaction in the brain that produces a feeling akin to falling in love.
So every time you savor a bit of the food of the gods you are enjoying a link to Belize’s rich Maya heritage, and when you share a bar with someone you love…well, maybe Montezuma was right all along… .
The Maya Food Of The Gods article was written by the proprietor of Chaa Creek – © Lucy Fleming and is featured in the Destination Belize Magazine 2012 edition.