As you munch your way through a chocolate bar or sip a creamy mug of cocoa, do you ever stop and wonder how mankind ever came up with such a heavenly taste? It may come as a surprise to you to find out that cacao, the tropical tree that yields the seeds used in the manufacture of chocolate, was cultivated in Mexico over 3,000 years ago and is one of its gifts to the world.
From the days of the ancient Maya and Aztecs when it was a sacred offering to the gods and the drink of kings, to its popularity among the colonial clergy of Nueva España, at the court of the Sun King in France, and our own choco cravings, in some way or another, chocolate and cacao has always been associated with the divine. In fact, even the scientific name of cacao is Theobroma cacao, which means “food of the gods.”
The Story begins
Native to tropical America, the tree was first cultivated in the coastal lowlands along the Gulf of Mexico, the present-day state of Tabasco, by the Olmec people, 3,000 years ago. Cacao needs fertile soils, tropical temperatures and abundant rainfall and the area suited it very well, so much so that it is still produced in Tabasco today, although the major European powers introduced the tree to West Africa, the Caribbean islands and Brazil during the Colonial period.
The Olmecs may have introduced cacao but it was the Maya who began to cultivate it on a large scale between 400 B.C. and A.D. 100. During the Classic period, the Golden Age of Mayan civilization from A.D. 250 to 900, cacao or kakaw had a pivotal role in the economy as a lucrative cash crop, and also in their religion.
The Maya honored their gods with offerings of cacao fruit and a bitter red drink made from the ground beans, crushed achiote (annatto) seeds and water. The fruit was associated with the human heart and the drink with blood. They drank it during ceremonies, festivals and even at engagement and wedding celebrations. The Maya Quiche word chokola’k means “drink chocolate together,” and may be the origin of our word chocolate. The Maya tempered the bitter taste of the cacao by adding a variety of flavorings including corn, allspice, vanilla, honey, herbs and chili. Polychrome pottery shows Mayan rulers imbibing the sacred drink and women pouring it from one vessel to another to make it frothy.
The Mayan god of trade Ek Chuah was also the patron of cacao growers and merchants grew prosperous from the trade. They had plantations in Tabasco and archaeologists have also found evidence of cacao cultivation in southern Quintana Roo, Belize and even in rejolladas or earth-filled depressions around cenotes in the Chichén Itzáarea. Cacao beans were used as currency, a tradition that endured in Mexico well into the Colonial period, and unscrupulous traders would even make counterfeit cacao beans from clay.
Like Water for Chocolate
Centuries later, the Aztecs also traded and consumed vast quantities of cacao, demanding it as tribute from their vassals in Chiapas, Oaxaca and Tabasco. Emperor Moctezuma drank a cold cacao drink flavored with flowers and fruit, and the royal storehouses were not only crammed with gold and silver but also cacao beans.
Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés and his followers sipped their first cold, unsweetened chocolate at the court of the emperor Moctezuma in 1519 and noted that it did seem to give people stamina. After the Conquest of Mexico in 1521, Spanish settlers of the new colony they called Nueva España began to add sugar, cinnamon and pepper and serve it hot. They referred to it as chocolatl, using the indigenous word derived from xoco, bitter and atl, water in Nahuatl, although chacau haa or chocol haa also means hot water in Maya, and the word “chocolate” emerged.
The Spaniards developed quite a taste for chocolate and started shipping cacao back to the Motherland in 1585. The drink of nobles, clerics and kings, it was all the rage at the Spanish court and spread throughout Europe during the 17th century where it soon became the fashionable drink in wealthy circles.
In 1828, Coenraad Van Houten invented cocoa powder in Holland and by the middle of the century British Quaker magnates such as J.S. Fry and John Cadbury were perfecting the industrial process to make chocolate bars and bring cacao to the masses. In Switzerland, Henri Nestlé added milk to make a sweeter candy bar, the Hershey Company followed in the United States and the rest is history!
Although most of the world’s cacao now comes from West Africa and Brazil, cacao plantations still dot the Chontalpa region of Tabasco and small factories in Oaxaca produce some of the purest chocolate available anywhere. Often flavored with cinnamon, Mexican chocolate tablets make a deliciously creamy, frothy version of the drink, perfect for cool winter evenings or even for breakfast.
Mole, Blending Chiles and Chocolate?
Chicken or turkey in chocolate sauce may sound strange but you should try this classic Mexican recipe. Mole is a deliciously spicy sauce made according to family recipes passed down from generation to generation. The word mole is derived from the Aztec word molli for sauce and the recipe is a true blend of New and Old World ingredients: pre-Hispanic staples and spices introduced by the Spaniards, which were combined with artistry in the convent kitchens of the Colonial period. Spanish diarists of the day such as Antonio de la Ciudad Real and Fray San Pedro Sebastian talk about visits to convents and monasteries and the dishes featuring native fruits and nuts, European spices, chicken or turkey served up by the innovative sisters and monks.
History tells us that mole originated in the Santa Rosa Convent in Puebla in the 17th century. The story goes that Sister Andrea de la Asunción blended chocolate, chili, sesame seeds, cinnamon, almonds, peanuts, garlic and pepper among other ingredients, to create a sauce that she served with turkey to honor the visit of the Viceroy.
Another version of the story attributes the dish to another monastery and to divine intervention. Juan de Palafox, Viceroy and Archbishop of Puebla announced that he would be visiting his diocese and dining with the monks. The head cook, Friar Pascual was nervous and began to berate his assistants about the mess in the kitchen. He hastily piled all the spices, nuts, seeds, stale tortillas and chilies lying on the counter onto a tray and was carrying it to the pantry when he tripped and went flying, spilling everything into a pan full of turkey simmering away for the visitors. Fearing that he had spoilt the meal, he began to pray, and to his amazement the accidental dish turned out to be a great success. To this day, Mexican cooks often ask for his help, saying “San Pascual Bailón, atiza mi fogón,” literally, St. Pascual Bailón, bless my kitchen.
There are now countless variations on the original recipe in Puebla, Oaxaca, Hidalgo the state of Mexico and beyond and an October Mole Festival in San Pedro Atocpan (October 2 – 24), a town on the outskirts of Mexico City, which produces most of the mole spice paste consumed in the country. Up to 500,000 people are expected to attend the festival in 2010 and the organizers hope that the art of making mole will soon be recognized as a World Heritage tradition by UNESCO.
Be sure to try some Mexican chocolate or mole during your stay in Cancún and the Riviera Maya. Mole is on the menu at Hacienda Sisal Restaurant and you may order hot chocolate at any of the Royal Resorts restaurants.Mexican chocolate bars and tablets are also on sale at The Royal Market if you would like to make your own. Pick up a molinillo or traditional wooden beater from local craft markets to whip your chocolate until it is frothy, and for a touch of luxury, add a dash of whipped cream.
Cacao beans, once a prized trade good used as currency by the ancient Maya.
Cacao is grown on estates in the fertile Chontalpa lowlands in Tabasco, Mexico.
Cacao beans are dried, roasted and then ground.
Photos courtesy of Secretary of Tourism, Tabasco, Mexico