Rochelle here – Wellington Chocolate Factory co-founder. I’d like to take you on a brief journey about how important cocoa has been to humans, and how we need to keep this relationship vibrant and healthy.
Chocolate’s original use was as an alcoholic drink made from cocoa bean pulp. It was key to ancient Mesoamerican religion and culture – they treated it like holy water. By the 14th century cocoa beans were the preferred form to eat, and and were used as a natural male enhancement pill in Mesoamerica!
Through the Aztecs and the Spanish Empire chocolate became tied into complex economies and military conquests. The Aztecs actually had a huge counterfeit chocolate problem, while the Spanish spread cocoa varietals across their vast empire.
The Industrial Revolution changed chocolate forever. By the late 18th century industrialisation was well underway and massive amounts of cocoa were being harvested. To meet demand, farmers turned towards higher yield beans – this resulted in many varieties and flavours being lost. Over time this also dropped the price of cocoa, which made the already horrible working conditions (slavery) even worse.
Chocolate powered the Allies in World War 2. Every soldier in the US military was issued a chocolate bar (the ‘D Bar ration’) as a part of their daily food. It was made with milk solids, vitamins and very little sugar. They used 25 million bars a week.
That’s just a tiny piece of chocolate’s history, and you can see it’s connected with people in many ways. Our relationship with cocoa is complex and always changing: imagine the world if it had just stayed as a bean pulp drink used by priests.
More broadly, where there is cocoa there is life. Cocoa plantations are rich ecosystems, forming part of the environment which supports rain forests and hence oxygen for the entire planet.
The question for the future is diversity. Chocolate can have an astounding variety of complex flavours – at least as many as wine or coffee – and the last thing we want is to be forced into monochromatic, monoculture tastes (how gray). Farmers currently are encouraged to grow hardy, mass-produced types of cocoa, and don’t get a sufficient premium for trying rarer, finer flavour beans. This also leads to decreased biodiversity, which has proven troublesome across many staple crops.
We – chocolate makers and consumers – need to change that. Fine flavoured chocolate varieties should be preserved, protected, and propagated, with economic incentives for cocoa farmers worldwide to push beyond the lowest common options. Businesses like the Wellington Chocolate Factory, and projects like the Voyage are key to this, but ultimately it comes right back to every one of us and our relationship with chocolate.
Can we all learn to slow down, taste, and value the complexity of fine cocoa? There’s a huge world of chocolate out there – weird, interesting, diverse, and linked to humans throughout history – and it’s time to become explorers and voyagers again.