Tag Archives: cacao

Chocolate – Drink of the Gods

By Randy Jackson

I once won a dessert contest with chocolate-covered cheesecake pierogies. This was a recipe of my own invention that combined influences from Poland (pierogies), Greece (cheesecake), and Mexico (chocolate). It’s the chocolate, I think, that put me over the top. That rich, dark brown, sweet substance, universally beloved, has been around for about four thousand years, but only in its current pierogi-coating form for about 150 years. For most of its history, chocolate was a beverage, served cold, and that is how it was first introduced to Europeans when it was carried back from Mexico at the time of the Spanish Conquest.

Bernal Díaz, who accompanied Cortés in the conquest of Mexico, wrote of a visit to Moctezuma:

From time to time they served him, in cups of pure gold, a certain drink made from cacao. It was said that it gave one power over women, but this I never saw. I did see them bring in more than fifty large pitchers of cacao with froth in it, and he drank some of it, the women serving with great reverence.

The reverence the Aztec held for their cacao (chocolate) drink wasn’t unique to their civilization. Like so much of the Aztec culture, it was something they absorbed from earlier, predecessor civilizations. It was the Maya who elevated the drink into their mythological structure. Some surviving Mayan hieroglyphics report of an annual gathering to give thanks to Ek Chuah, the god of cacao.

This history shouldn’t surprise anyone. Cacao is a natural source of caffeine, and if it were not for our science-sterilized view of the cosmos, we too would have a caffeine god. If Moctezuma were alive today, he’d have a Starbucks card. He’d likely order a latte. I say this because of the length Aztecs would go to create foam in the cacao drink they called xocoatl. An early drawing shows an Aztec woman pouring the cacao drink from above shoulder height into a receptacle. This causes the substance to foam. The foam holds the richest flavor when the bubbles burst in the mouth.

Of course, the xocoatl that Moctezuma and the Aztec elites were served wasn’t the same quality of cacao drink available to soldiers and regular folk. Xocoatl for the elites was made of pure cacao and flavored with highly valued ground and roasted plants and spices. Depending on the flavoring additives, the different xocoatl mixtures had different colors as well.

For the common Aztecs, xocoatl was more diluted and mixed with ground maize (corn). This is similar to a drink called chilate, found today in Oaxaca and elsewhere, including throughout Latin America (recipes vary). Even this lower quality xocoatl was still highly revered by the Aztecs, and was only served on special occasions such as births, feasts, weddings and funerals (which sometimes involved mixing human blood into the drink). Perhaps adding to the esteem in which Aztecs held xocoatl was the knowledge that they were drinking money. Cacao seeds (which required fermentation, roasting, and crushing to make chocolate) were widely used as currency.

It was the earlier Mayan civilization which first began using cacao seeds as currency. In many ways cacao seeds were an ideal currency – light, portable, with the underlying value that it made something of value – chocolate. The use of this currency was a significant contributor to the flourishing of Mayan civilization. Having a currency created a new social class – a merchant class. The use of cacao currency facilitated trade and allowed a wider distribution of wealth beyond the rulers and elites.

The Aztecs also used cacao seeds as currency. The conquering Spanish quickly adopted the cacao seed as currency as well. They used it to set market prices, and in 1555 established an exchange rate between cacao seeds and the Spanish currency, the real. The cacao bean continued to be used as currency as late as 1850, although by then only for small change.

At the same time the cacao bean served as currency, it was also a consumable commodity in both Mesoamerica and Europe. The Jesuits introduced the drink to the Spanish court where it became popular, despite its being an acquired taste. For a time, the drink was seasoned with chilies and spices as the Aztecs had prepared it. This recipe persisted in Spain for about 100 years, but in time, by adding sugar, dropping the spices, and serving it hot, chocolate became a highly popular drink throughout Europe, spreading from the elite classes to the masses.

Chocolate houses flourished throughout Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries. These were largely places where the wealthier classes could socialize, to “let their hair down,” you could say, and participate in activities like gambling. Chocolate’s reputation as an aphrodisiac continued from the Aztecs, and that association only added to its popularity. As time went on, the reputation of chocolate houses declined, and they were perceived as places of debauchery.

The industrial revolution brought important changes to chocolate. A cacao press, invented in the Netherlands, separated out the cacao butter, leaving a dry powder, which is cocoa as we know it today. Then cacao butter, first considered a byproduct in this process, was mixed with the coco powder and the beloved chocolate bar was born.

On November 8, 2019, 500 years from the date Cortés met Moctezuma in Tenochtitlán, the descendants of Cortés and Moctezuma met at the exact spot in what is now Mexico City (stories and photos are easily found online; one shows Ascanio Pignatelli, a descendant of Cortés, taking a selfie with a descendant of Moctezuma). Despite reading every article I could find on this meeting, alas, I could not discover whether they shared a cup of chocolate. I hope they did as a fitting tribute to this beverage with such a long and fascinating history – the drink of the gods.

The Original Buzz-Inducing Elixir

By Kary Vannice

What could be better than chocolate and wine? How about chocolate wine?

It is a little-known fact that chocolate wouldn’t even exist if it weren’t for the early Mesoamericans’ insatiable lust for fermented fruit, and a good buzz. The cocoa tree that grew wild throughout the tropics of what we now know as the Americas was originally sought after for the juicy flesh that surrounds the cocoa seed. Indigenous people found that they could harvest the small, football shaped pods that grew directly from the bark of the tree and create a slightly alcoholic drink to be used in religious ceremonies and celebrations.

In fact, “cocoa wine” was the real motivation to domesticate the cocoa tree. The eventual processing of beans into chocolate became a fortuitous byproduct, but initially was never even considered. Chocolate was only discovered because wasting the leftover beans was unthinkable in a society where all of nature’s sacred gifts were used to their fullest advantage. (See “Chocolate – Drink of the Gods,” elsewhere in this issue for what the ancients did with the seeds.)

Ironically, now that our modern society has developed their own insatiable lust for all things chocolate, the original buzz-inducing elixir is now considered a waste product in the chocolate-making process.

Several years ago at the Mercado Orgánico de Huatulco, I noticed a cocoa vendor displaying an odd assortment of bottles filled with a white, slightly transparent liquid, clearly producing the tiny bubbles that are a hallmark of active fermentation. Curious, I asked him what was in the bottles. He said it was the liquid that came off of the cocoa beans as they were fermenting in the sun, before being dried, roasted and processed into chocolate. Amazed and delighted, knowing the benefits of fermented foods for the health of the human gut, I told him I would buy all the bottles. For me, the novelty of getting to try this mysterious, effervescent juice (and its health benefits) far outweighed the fact that the drink itself might be less than delicious.

I immediately removed the mesh covering on one of the bottles and took a cautious sip, my curiosity getting the better of me. As it turned out, the taste was pleasant, if not sweet, and didn’t taste at all like chocolate. The vendor smiled with delight as he saw my reaction to this newly introduced probiotic. Noticing this, I asked him to tell me more about the fermentation process.

Seeing that I was clearly taken by this discovery, he didn’t pass up the opportunity to share his knowledge with me, from start to finish. He picked up one of the ripe cocoa pods at his fingertips and adeptly sliced it open with this pocketknife, exposing 40-60 tightly packed fleshy, seeds inside. They looked a bit like a fat, ghostly-white corn on the cob, if the kernels were about ten to twenty times as plump.

He proceeded to tell me that chocolate would not have its chocolaty flavor at all if it were not for the process of fermentation. After harvesting the pods and scooping out the seeds, they are packed into containers to ferment for about six to ten days. During this time, yeasts, bacteria, and enzymes break down and ferment the juicy white pulp that surrounds the cacao beans. As this happens, they release a juice referred to as the “sweatings” that is generally tossed out as a waste product.

However, this ingenious farmer, true to his indigenous roots, saw opportunity, not waste, in this bubbly, slightly boozy froth. Fascinated by the agro-history lesson and eager to support his sustainable practices, I told him I would take at least two bottles a week for as long as he could provide them. Sadly, the supply didn’t last long, but the lesson remains.

And now you, too, know that the origins of your favorite chocolate were not chocolate at all, but a fruity fermented wine that dates back to 1400 BC and remains a link between us and the ancient peoples of the Olmec, Aztec and Mayan cultures.

Tejate Today: Oaxaca’s Pre-Hispanic Drink Was Reserved for Royalty

By Alvin Starkman M.A., J.D.

Gloria Cruz Sánchez holds a jícara (half gourd), high above her head while in a ritualized fashion she pours water down into a large green glazed ceramic bowl containing a beige doughy mush, creating foam. She’s in the Oaxaca Sunday market town of Tlacolula de Matamoros, completing the last phase in making tejate, just like her forebears thousands of years earlier. If you’ve been to a Oaxacan market you’ve likely seen it being served to locals, and may have been afraid to imbibe; it looks like spent shaving cream that surely would make you ill. But nothing could be further from the truth.

Tejate is a nutritious pre-Hispanic drink which was reserved for Aztec high priests, and Zapotec rulers before them. It’s still consumed today by Oaxacans of every station in life. Tejate is made exclusively by women, using virtually the same ingredients and methods employed over millennia. It dates to more than 3,000 years ago.

Tejate’s components are corn, cacao (sometimes substituted with coconut), purified or mountain spring water, seeds of the mamey fruit, dried aromatic “funeral tree flowers” (from the Quararibea funebris bush), lime mineral, sometimes a seasonal nut, and ash from burnt wood. As distinct from many other traditional Oaxacan delicacies (i.e. mole negro), all of tejate’s ingredients are native to Mexico; and all but cacao are endemic to the state of Oaxaca. There is, however, one exception: for the asking the tejatera will add sugary water as a sweetener, whereas in pre-Hispanic times she would have used bee honey or baked caramelized agave.

Preparing tejate is an extremely laborious task. In fact in order to have it ready to serve in markets by about 9:30 am, women must begin the process at roughly 4:00 am. And so Gloria awakens at her home in the village of San Marcos Tlapazola while it’s still dark, long before roosters have begun to crow, so as to have her tejate ready for market sales. She toasts the flowers, mamey seeds and cacao on an earthen comal using dried pencas (agave leaves) as firewood. She does the same with peanuts. She keeps the mixtures segregated from one another.

She then washes the corn in a clay colander, gingerly removing any small stones. Thereafter she boils spring water in a terracotta cauldron on a stone base, again fueled with leaves of the succulent. She adds powdered lime, strained ash, and the corn. The mixture simmers for about 40 minutes. The flames die down. The corn is strained once more to cool and to remove excess ash.

Gloria now reaps the benefits of the modern age; she walks to a mill to have the cacao mixture and then the corn, separately ground. She used to do all the grinding on a metate (primitive grinding stone), but when the mill opened in her village she decided to take advantage of it. She then ambles back to her homestead. While the mixtures are again cooling, breakfast preparations ensue. It’s about 6:00 am, and time for a small drink of mezcal.

Gloria spends the next two hours grinding the roasted peanuts on a metate followed by painstakingly combining that puree with the corn and cacao mixtures. It all gets blended together in an orderly, almost ceremonial manner. This most delicate step must be done by hand.

After breakfast, in the back of a covered pickup along with others from the village, Gloria travels to Tlacolula, where she erects her stall. She begins the pièce de résistance, holding the jícara high above her head with one hand, the other mixing the almost buttery thick concoction with the water from on high. She repeats the process until all in the ceramic bowl has been transformed into tejate, the cacao-nutty-maple frothy drink of the gods.

Gloria has her regular customers, those who attend the market on a weekly basis; but many are infrequent visitors, including both foreign and domestic tourists. Some drink Gloria’s tejate alongside her stall, in a painted jícara she supplies. Others buy it in a plastic cup “to go.” Usually by mid-afternoon, typically no later than 4 pm, she’s completely sold out. Gloria will then shop for more ingredients in the market, readying for the next Sunday’s preparations before returning to her village in the back of that same covered pick-up. It’s been a hard yet rewarding, long day’s work.

Alvin Starkman operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca (www.mezcaleducationaltours.com). For the past three decades he’s been a regular imbiber of tejate; and he’s still standing.