Chocolate: Jewish Contributions to Its Sweet History

It can be safely said that few things unite the world as much as chocolate! It is the globe’s most popular sweet….with more than 3 million tons of cocoa beans consumed each year. How is it that this lush, intensively flavorful food has become so popular in every corner of the world? And who were some of the key people who helped it to become so popular?

That’s what we are going to dive into today — and interestingly, we will find that Jews have made very significant contributions toward that popularity.

Chocolate’s story begins in South America with the Olmec Indians of southern Mexico around 1500 BCE. It is believed that the Olmecs began to grow the first crop of cocoa beans — fermenting, roasting, and grinding them for consumption as hot drinks.

Eventually, the Olmecs passed their knowledge of cocoa on to the Mayans in Central America — who not only consumed chocolate, they revered it. Mayan written history mentions chocolate drinks being used in celebrations as well as for important business transactions.

The Mayans, in turn, passed along their knowledge of cacao along to the Aztecs. The Aztecs liked to flavor the drink with such spices as chili, cinnamon, pepper, and vanilla. The Aztecs believed cocoa was a gift to them from their god Quetzal-co-atl. Unlike the Mayan, the Aztecs like to drink their chocolate cold.

An Aztec Temple

Until now, knowledge of chocolate was limited entirely to the Americas. But as some European explorers began venturing to South America, they too discovered the wonders of cocoa beans. Among these adventurous Europeans were Spanish & Portuguese Jews, fleeing the Inquisition begun by Spain’s monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella.

This included the brothers David and Rafael Mercado. Living in what is present-day Guyana, they first became involved with sugar, inventing early machinery for processing it. Unfortunately, they were so good that the Dutch authorities prohibited them from the business. So instead they began trading cocoa in Mexico’s burgeoning chocolate business.

Another Jewish chocolate pioneer fleeing the Inquisition was Benjamin d’Acosta de Andrade, creator of the first cocoa processing plant. Andrade had moved to Dutch Brazil in the 1600s so he could practice Judaism again openly. But when the Portuguese recaptured the area in 1645, he fled again, this time to the Caribbean island of Martinique where he became a leading trader in its booming cocoa business.

Inevitably, these enterprising Jewish traders returned to Europe, equipped with their knowledge of chocolate and began producing it for the European market. Their main base of activity was the small village of Saint-Esprit next to Bayonne in southern France. Spanish and Portuguese Jews had arrived there in 1550 at the invitation King Henry II.

Some names associated with chocolate trade included: Emil and Isaac Péreire, Alvaro and Jacome Luiz, and Aaron Colace, among others. Sadly, once the local French population learned how to make chocolate, they eventually banned Jews from the trade.

Meanwhile, across the ocean in colonial America, chocolate was also becoming a hit. Benjamin Franklin sold chocolate out of his print shop, and George and Martha Washington enjoyed it regularly at their home in Mount Vernon.

In the New World, Sephardi families playing a prominent role in bringing cocoa beans to New York from the Caribbean. Some names included the Lopez family headed Aaron Lopez. Born in Lisbon in 1731 to a converso Jewish family, Lopez made his way across the ocean to Newport where he become one of the founders of the Touro Synagogue.

In New York meanwhile, the Gomez family had also become quite important in the chocolate trade. Fleeing the Inquisition, Luis Gomez had arrived to New York in 1696, initially engaging in the fur trade, but later he turned to chocolate…thanks in large part to his wife Rebecca. After his death, Rebecca ran the business and advertised her chocolate in local papers.

While Sephardim were involved early in the development of chocolate, they were not alone…in the Jewish world. In the early 1830s, in the kitchen of Prince von Metternich of the Austro-Hungarian Empire was a young Jewish apprentice by the name of Franz Sache. One day, the prince wished to give a banquet and wanted a special dessert to impress his guests. With the main cook out sick, it fell to Franz Sacher to come up with something — and he created the Sacher Torte, widely still made and enjoyed around the world today.

Sacher Torte (Wikimedia)

When we arrive at the 1900s, as the rise of Nazism led to a Jewish exodus from Europe, we see the rise of a few prominent new Jewish chocolate makers. One example is Eliyahu Fromenchenko, who had owned a candy factory in Latvia. In 1933, he arrived in then-Palestine where he founded Elite, today one of Israel’s best-known chocolate makers.

A few years later, another European chocolatier, Stephen Klein, fled Vienna after a Nazi competitor had seized his chocolate company, settling in New York with his wife, children and five brothers and two sisters, all in one small apartment. From there, Klein would go on to create Barton’s, growing it into one of the dominant chocolate makers in the U.S. for many years.

The past 10 years or so has seen a surge of smaller, entrepreneurial, often-family-owned chocolate makers, including a number of kosher ones — and so a sweet story continues.

Related links:

— — —

Joshua de Sola Mendes is editor of S&P Central (www.sandpcentral.org) as well as publisher of a guidebook to chocolate around the world.

--

--

I am interested in the history of the Spanish & Portuguese Jews, also known as the Western Sephardim. — Joshua de Sola Mendes

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store