MONTEZUMA’S GIFT OF CHOCOLATE
Cacao beverages date back to 1900 BC. The first chocolate drink is thought to have been created around 2,000 years ago by the Mayans, and there is clear evidence of some form of cocoa beverage in Aztec culture by AD 1400. Recently, Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History announced that archaeologists have found, for the first time, traces of 2,500-year-old chocolate on a plate in the Yucatan peninsula, suggesting its use as a condiment or sauce as well.
the seed of the cacao tree was a kind of currency
Aside from being an ingredient in food and beverages, the seed of the cacao tree was a kind of currency. All of the territories that had been conquered by the Aztecs and grew cacao beans were ordered to pay them as a tax or, as the Aztecs called it, a “tribute.” Chocolate also played a special role in both Mayan and Aztec royal and religious events. Priests presented cacao seeds as offerings to the gods and served chocolate drinks during sacred ceremonies. The Mayans sometimes mixed cacao with annatto, the most common food dye of that era, to form a sacred liquid resembling blood with ritual applications. There were several very specific recipes for combining the raw or roasted cacåhoatl with various grains to create many different beverages: some were believed to have aphrodisiac properties, others to address health concerns such as “cachexia”2 (or wasting syndrome) as well as serious illness like dysentery or liver disease. Original texts include warnings against excessive consumption, which the Mexicas believed could lead to numerous illnesses.
In 1519, in a gesture meant to convey a great honor, Montezuma II presented explorer Hernán Cortés with the gift of a beverage made of ground cacao beans, vanilla, and chiles, xoxoatl (in Nathuatl it is called chocaltl).
When Cortés returned to Spain, what we know as chocolate, which had been sweetened with sugar, was introduced to Europe.
What we call Mexican chocolate has a unique taste. Its texture is also quite different from that of any baking or cooking chocolate found in a typical American pantry; the sugar is grainier and the chocolate is quite sweet. A blend of cacoa paste and piloncillo (hence the coarser texture) and cinnamon results in the signature Mexican chocolate flavor. It is sold in tablets. Rancho Gordo sells what is probably the best quality rendition of this at their stores in Napa and San Francisco’s Ferry Building Marketplace
Want to learn more about chocolate? Visit Dandelion Chocolate in San Francisco’s Mission district for a fascinating look at bean-to-bar chocolate production in their on-site chocolate factory (shown above)!
(Note: this post is excerpted from my book, Celebraciones Mexicanas: History, Traditions and Recipes and the recipe below is by co-author Adriana Almazan Lahl)