Originating from the Amazon rainforests, where it grows as a medium sub-canopy tree, cocoa has been transported all over the tropical world. The best cocoa is produced from the brilliant red and yellow pods of the "Criollo" forms that arose from those grown in Central America by the Mayans and Aztecs.
Refined into chocolate, cocoa has become one of the most valuable economic crops from the tropical regions. It has a history that goes back thousands of years, and forms a direct link between the ancient civilizations of Central-South America and the modern world.
The name "chocolate" was derived from the Aztec name "Xoco-latl," which was adopted by Hernando Cortez in 1522. Both the Mayan and Aztecs believed that chocolate was a divine food, a gift from the gods, a belief that Carl Linnaeus immortalized in the nomenclature of the genera in 1753, "Theobroma" translated, "food of the gods."
Cocoa trees were -- and still are -- grown in small orchards under the forest canopy. The pods, each containing 20-60 beans, are collected when ripe, split open and the beans removed. The beans are then fermented for four to seven days in heaps or boxes, to obtain the dark brown color and strong flavor.
When Cortez reached the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan (Mexico City) he found that cocoa beans formed the basis of the Aztec economy. Used as currency, 100 beans would buy a slave. The lowland peoples and surrounding tribes would pay tribute to the Aztec emperor Montezuma in cocoa beans.
The Aztecs also made a ceremonial drink from the beans, which were roasted, ground, then mixed with wild vanilla, allspice, capsicums, maize and salt. The drink was reserved for religious ceremonies.
In 1528, Hernando Cortez presented cocoa beans to the King of Spain, Charles V. From then on it gained enormous popularity in Europe and the Western world.