It’s impossible to say exactly when, or by whom, the modern chocolate concoction was invented. The Spaniards were the first to mix chocolate with cinnamon, black pepper, and anise instead of the Mesoamericans’ original blend of chiles, vanilla, and achiote. The Swiss created the famous fondant and added dried milk. Belgians adapted the praline (a French confection of caramelized almonds), thus making the popular chocolate bonbons that became a sought-after staple for Valentine’s Day. The Dutch became the pioneers of cocoa powder. But whoever claims the ultimate credit, chocolate as we know it today wouldn’t have been possible without the Jews.
Before its widespread democratization, chocolate was a premier delicacy available only to Europe’s nobility and their aristocratic courts. The earliest documented European exposure to the New World’s golden fruit occurred off the coast of Mayan Honduras during Christopher Columbus’ fourth trip in 1502. He discovered cocoa beans in the cargo of a large native vessel after detaining it. Nonetheless, he disregarded their significance because he mistook them for almonds, which he later misdescribed in his diary and subsequent letters to the Spanish Crown. Several of those letters were addressed exclusively to Luis de Santángel, a third-generation converso and royal treasurer who morally and financially supported the Italian-born mariner’s expedition before the Catholic Monarchs of Spain.
Almost two decades later, the infamous Spanish invader Hernán Cortés also failed to establish the plant in Iberia in 1528 when he presented it to the court of Charles V along with numerous animals, objects, and fruits. It wasn’t until the first half of the 17th century when the traditional frothy, cold, and dark cocoa-based beverage—just as the Mayans and Aztecs consumed it—made it to the Castillian-speaking lands.
Monasteries and convents established in New Spain, which sought to study chocolate’s alleged nutritional and medicinal properties, consolidated its appearance in the Old World. In 1544, a delegation of nobles of Kekchi Maya traveled to Spain. Brought by Dominican friars to meet future King Phillip II, the natives bore big receptacles of beaten chocolate as a gift for their ruler’s offspring. In 1585, the first official shipment of the exotic commodity would reach Seville from what is now Veracruz, México.
Demand for cocoa significantly increased among the ruling classes, who swiftly developed a taste for the transformed drink, now warm, sweet, and spicy. After the marriage of Spanish noblewomen to the French monarchy, the precious commodity swiftly poured into southern Spanish seaports, whence it gradually spread to the rest of Europe, ushering in the golden age of chocolate and the peak of Spain’s empire’s political and economic power.
Chocolate was so commonplace among the Spanish elites that around 1680, it was common to serve it to officials during the public executions of the Spanish Inquisition. High-ranking officials such as Charles II, king of Spain, sipped chocolate while watching conversos accused of being Judaizers be burned at the stake. Although it’s unclear whether the victims received chocolate or not, some sources suggest that those being held for investigation by the Inquisition did.
Throughout most parts of the world, the manufacture of chocolate never ceased to rely on the existence of ever-increasing port trade. Sephardic Jews played an essential role in the development of the trans-Atlantic trade ever since Spanish colonial vessels sailed off to discover new trade routes.
Conversos and crypto-Jews have been present in the American continent since the days of the Columbine expeditions until the subsequently forced exiles in the mid-1600s. Even though “New Christians” were strictly forbidden by law from traveling freely, let alone residing in any of the territories of New Spain, many were able to circumvent the stringent prohibitions imposed by the Catholic Church and the Spanish Crown. The settlements of the colonies (primarily the Antilles, Brazil, Guyana, Suriname, and Venezuela) provided a haven for persecuted Jews and presented an opportunity to reinvent themselves in new frontiers and save their religion.
The Dutch colonization of northern Brazil (1630-54) was a commercial pinnacle for the diasporic endeavors of a generation of crypto-Jewish traders with extensive and robust mercantile and family ties in the Americas and Europe. Jews of Portuguese origin, primarily from the Netherlands, settled in the Atlantic Dutch territories, where their merchant activities grew and flourished. These homens de naçao (men of the nation) began to occupy major niches within the competing transoceanic commerce routes, strengthening and advancing the trade of items such as cacao, coffee, and indigo between interregional and inter-imperial linkages.
“Chocolate is definitely a Sephardic commodity, a product inherently immigrant. Western Sephardim began using chocolates in Jewish settings, on Shabbat, at the High Holidays,” said Rabbi Deborah Prinz, co-author of The Boston Chocolate Party, a forthcoming children’s book about chocolate and Hanukkah. “Chocolate reflects the resilience of these Jewish individuals—just as the cocoa beans go through several complex processes and challenges to become an eating or drinking product.”
The vast networks of Sephardic Jews living in the Caribbean would become reputable manufacturers par excellence and the largest exporters of cacao. Jews would learn from Native Americans how to process cacao according to their customs. Early involvement in the harvesting and developing of vanilla refineries and rum distilleries meant the Jews settled in the colonies had an advantage not only in the harvesting process of chocolate but also in its manufacturing.
According to American Jewish historian Jacob R. Marcus, “Jewish shopkeepers specialized in cocoa and chocolate, which they secured in large quantities from their co-religionists in Curaçao […] Chocolate, in fact, may have been [a] Sephardic Jewish specialty.”
Benjamin d’Acosta de Andrade, a Dutch West India Company shareholder, was one of these new settlers. Originally from Bayonne, this converso, who most probably had been born in Portugal, farmed cocoa trees on the French Caribbean island of Martinique around the 1660s. The entrepreneur, who later converted back to Judaism in Brazil, created the first cacao-processing factory in French territory, opened the first synagogue in 1676, and owned two of the largest sugarcane plantations in the region.
Midway through the 1680s, “Jews effectively ran the entire cultivation of the French West Indies,” according to the French missionary Jean-Baptiste Labat’s Nouveau voyage aux iles de l’Amerique. Cacao was shipped via Suriname and Curaçao, an island off the west coast of Venezuela, to the ports of Bordeaux, Amsterdam, and Bayonne. The Jewish presence in Martinique and Guadeloupe ended with the signing of the Code Noir (Black Code) by King Louis XIV, motivated by a petition distributed by Jesuit fathers accusing Jews of blaspheming Jesus and killing newborns born to their Christian slaves.
D’Acosta de Andrade tried to fight his expulsion fiercely. On July 17, 1689, he petitioned Louis XIV to persuade him that his commerce benefited the kingdom. He failed and was forced to flee to the Dutch territory of Curaçao, where another Brazilian chocolate merchant from Recife, Isaac da Costa, had landed in the 1650s.
Chocolate acquired a unique place in various ports’ dietary traditions. In some areas, it gradually evolved into a substantial ingredient in the cuisine of a part of the population and turned into a local specialty. Iberian Jews began to settle in France—coming from Portugal, escaping once again the Inquisition, continuing to conceal their hidden Judaic practices. In the 17th century, King Henri IV issued a series of patent letters authorizing asylum and allowing these refugee Jews, known as marchands portugais (Portuguese merchants), to live and conduct “trade and commerce” in only a few southwest cities and towns, including Bordeaux, Nantes, Peyrehorade, and Labastide-Clairence, as well as Saint-Esprit, the Bayonne district located on the opposite side of the Adour river.
By the 1630s, around 60 Jewish families lived in the city, all silent Jews. Some had connections with Amsterdam and the Americas and were already involved in the spice and cocoa bean trade. Because of the religious liberties and the sanctuary conditions France initially offered, many members gradually felt comfortable embracing their Jewishness and Judaism. Less than a century later, the Jewish population had grown to 800, and 13 synagogues were built in Saint-Esprit to accommodate them.
Prinz writes in her acclaimed book On the Chocolate Trail that several “Bayonne Jews such as Emil Péreire, Isaac Péreire, Alvaro Luiz, Jacome Luiz, and Aaron Colace” were crucial members in the business of exporting and smuggling cacao from Spain across the French border.
Yet Iberian Jews didn’t only engage in illicit commerce; they brought with them not only cacao and connections but a particular finesse and a knack for producing good quality chocolate. Whether they used the exclusive criollo variety from Venezuela, forastero from Guyana, or maraignon of Brazil, they possessed the techniques behind the arts of heating, grinding, and dosing beans. As a result, the reputation of Bayonnais chocolate spread around Europe because of the blend’s properties and exquisite flavor of the Jewish chocolatiers’ delectable and elegant marble-size balls, often concocted on a stone.
As recounted by Joan Nathan in her book Quiches, Kugels, and Couscous: My Search for Jewish Cooking in France: “The reputation of Bayonnais chocolate spread because of the quality of the cocoa beans and the Portuguese Jews’ expertise in blending chocolate, sugar, and other spices according to the formulas brought from nearby Spain.”
The city and surrounding area remained a vibrant regional center of chocolate production until Jews were banned from the city’s chocolate guild in 1691 by Christian chocolate makers, who, jealous of their success, falsely accused them before the ancien régime of “altering everything they sell.” The continuous antisemitic attacks and displays of resentment drove Jews to leave in considerable numbers at the beginning of the 18th century, never turning back.
As the chocolate industry expanded around the globe beyond the intercolonial routes, in North America, many Jews rose to positions of power in the intercontinental chocolate trade. For example, Aaron Lopez gained notoriety as an influential trader who moved to the colony of Newport, Rhode Island, as a religious refugee—born in 1731 in Lisbon to a renowned family of conversos. Aaron sailed ship for the New World, where his half-brother lived. When he arrived in Massachusetts in 1752, he promptly changed his Christian name (Duarte), which provided him with safety in Portugal, and got circumcised at 21.
Lopez quickly became the city’s most prominent dealer of chocolate, Judaica, and other commodities. He would make significant contributions to Jewish causes and the American Revolution. According to Prinz, “Aaron Lopez used chocolate at Passover and distributed it as tzedakah.” On the other hand, his dark past would mar his legacy, as the Jewish philanthropist funded the voyages of nearly 30 slave ships.
“The contributions [of Jewish chocolate traders] have tragically been glossed over or neglected due to dominant and long-standing historical narratives,” said Isaac Amon, director of academic research and program development of the Jewish Heritage Alliance. “Yet, the zeitgeist is changing. Sephardic history is replete with enduring themes which speak to all of us in the 21st century. These prominently include religious liberty, global migration, trade and industry, and identity, all part of the human story.”
The Gomez family of New York ran a big and profitable business in the West Indies, Madeira, Barbados, Curaçao, London, and Dublin. Between 1728 and 1747, they imported more than 20,860 pounds of cacao to New York via Curaçao, in addition to selling chocolate. The family placed boxes of drinking chocolate for sale in New York City in 1759 at the corner of Bruling’s Slip.
Levy Solomons—a native of Montreal who lived in Albany, New York, and manufactured and sold tobacco, snuff, and chocolate—was another essential North American Jewish trader in the 1790s. His factory supplied chocolate for hot drinks to Dutch customers. Simon and Hyman Gratz from Philadelphia had a successful business with Brazil, importing as much as 15,000 pounds of cocoa from Santo Domingo.
Back in Europe, a young Austrian confectioner would leave his mark on the history of Jews and chocolate decades later. The 16-year-old Jewish lad named Franz Sacher would go on to develop Austria’s famed Sachertorte, a chocolate sponge cake. Stephen Klein, a Viennese chocolatier, went to New York City in 1938 and founded Barton’s, redefining the kosher chocolate market. And Barton’s became known for hiring many Jewish refugees from Germany.
“The whole diasporic journey and history of Jews and chocolate parallel the Jewish refugee experience quite well,” said Prinz. “We see that Jews were able to find opportunity and substance in this fruit.”
Many things have changed since the discovery of chocolate, including its manufacturing techniques, raw materials, presentation, and consumption. The contemporary and diversified confectionery we know today, with its plethora of colors, shapes, and flavors, wouldn’t have been conceivable without the noteworthy contribution of Jews in colonial America and Europe. Because of their logistical efforts, technological advancements, and manufacturing optimization, many people can now claim a bit of chocolate as part of their own—another quintessential Jewish story in the diaspora.
Orge Castellano is a Madrid-based journalist, writer, and social scientist.