Basel offers sweet taste of history

Some of the mouth-watering exhibits on display (Basel Culture Museum)

A Basel museum is inviting visitors to take what it calls a sensual stroll through the cultural history of chocolate.

This content was published on December 16, 2002 - 10:13

Entitled "Chocolate: the art of enticement", the exhibition in the city's culture museum tells of the triumphant advance of cocoa and chocolate since they were first consumed 2,500 years ago.

The world's earliest known cocoa plantations were established by the Mayas in Central America. The beans were used by them and their successors not only as the ingredients of a medicinal drink, but also as a form of currency.

But as the museum explains with the aid of some seriously mouth-watering exhibits, chocolate was a late - and at first a mysterious - arrival in Europe.

Five hundred years ago, Christopher Columbus became the first European to learn of the existence of cocoa beans during one of his voyages to America. However, like his fellow explorers, he had no idea what to do with them.

In fact chocolate as a delicacy and beverage proved slow to catch on beyond Central America, where in 1531 a Spanish visitor was able to buy a slave for 100 cocoa beans.

Hot chocolate

European taste for cocoa began in earnest in 1585. From the Iberian peninsular, drinking chocolate gradually conquered the wealthy of the Old World as a "hot drink of delight", prized as a source of strength and as a remedy for all kinds of ills.

Alexander Brust, one of the organisers of the Basel exhibition, says chocolate began to spread outside Central America and the Iberian peninsular only after sugar was added during the manufacturing process.

"Before then," he told swissinfo, "it had a bitter taste which many Europeans found rather unpleasant and even disgusting."

But it only became a beverage of the people in the 19th century, when many chocolate companies came into existence.

Thanks to a host of developments and inventions, these firms popularised the eating of chocolate as a new luxury food.

In 1819, the first Swiss chocolate factory was set up in a former mill near Vevey by François-Louis Cailler, launching a tradition and an export market which last year earned Switzerland nearly SFr1.3 billion ($900m) in foreign sales.

swissinfo, Richard Dawson

In brief

To the ancient Mexicans, cocoa was originally a beverage of the gods, inducing Swedish naturalist Carolus Linnaeus to give the cocoa tree the Latin name "Theobroma Cacao" (food of the gods) in 1753.

The Aztecs used honey, vanilla and even chilli to flavour chocolate.

For the past two centuries, cocoa beans have also been cultivated in tropical regions of Africa and Asia.

The first chocolate was brought to Europe in the 16th century, some 200 years before it was first consumed in North America.

After years of experimenting, Switzerland's Daniel Peter produced the first milk chocolate in 1875.

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