Celebrate Chocolate!

(This article was written for Vallarta Tribune, edition # 1161.)

Behold one of the most popular food types and flavors in the world! It is a central ingredient in many recipes, particularly desserts, from cakes to pudding, brownies to ice-cream. It is a commonly exchanged gift on special occasions, such as Christmas, Easter, Hanukkah and of course, Valentine’s Day. We toast to it—and with it—when we savor specialty cocktails and martinis. World Chocolate Day is celebrated annually on July 7, making it timely to explore this delicious treat of roasted and ground cacao seeds.

Aztec man carrying cacao pod.

Along with avocado, color television and tequila, chocolate originated in Mexico, where it was prepared as a drink for nearly all of its history, which can be traced to 1900 BC. Chocolate is produced by roasting and grinding seeds from the cacao tree (Theobroma cacao), native to the tropical regions of the Americas. These seeds are contained within pods that contain a, pulp-like substance. First consumed as a beverage by the Olmecs, then as currency by the Maya and the Aztecs, chocolate has gained significant social, religious, medicinal, political and economic relevance in different periods and societies. Today, chocolate is so ubiquitous, there is not a single corner of the world where chocolate is not enjoyed today.

It is difficult to imagine how the original consumers identified the seeds in cacao pods as something edible due to their intensely bitter taste. Much to our fortune, cacao seeds tend to ferment and this natural process diminishes the unpleasant flavor that even turns away most wild animals. The first cacao plantations were harvested by the Olmecs, a Mexican culture that was situated in the Tabasco region, during the Preclassic period (2000 BC – 250 AD). Subsequently, the Maya expanded its consumption to the Yucatan Peninsula and Central America.

The Olmec did not have a formal written language. As such, very little is known about their consumption. The Maya, on the other hand, did use what is known as Maya glyphs, and it is the only Mesoamerican writing system that has been substantially deciphered. Thanks to Mayan codexes that have survived the test of time, evidence of cacao use for medicinal and religious purposes. Cacao was served as a hot beverage for special occasions and there is evidence that its bitter flavor was enhanced by introducing vanilla to the mix. It was also mixed with dried chiles, a practice that continues to this day—think mole sauce.

Thanks to surviving accounts by Spanish conquistadors, we learn that the Aztecs used cacao seeds as currency, and, like world travelers today, Spaniards had to learn their currency equivalents to go about their business. For example, 10 cacao seeds could buy you a hare to eat or a prostitute to… well, you get my drift! Spanish chroniclers also described the way the Aztecs used to grind cacao seeds, add hot water and mix. Then, they would make the beverage froth by moving it from one container to another, and by using a wooden utensil now called molinillo.

It wasn’t until Christopher Colombus’ fourth trip to New Spain that he came in contact with cacao seeds. Of all the edible imports Spaniards brought back to Europe, the hot beverage we now know and love as ‘hot chocolate’ is the one that produced the least favorable reaction—they didn’t know to think of it as food or medicine. In order for cacao to gain European acceptance, sugar, vanilla and cinnamon were added, making this new ‘exotic’ beverage a must-enjoy among the Spanish upper crust and subsequently the rest of Europe. The first reference to the word ‘chocolate’ in a French dictionary took place in 1680 and less than a century later, there are detailed written accounts on its manufacturing process.

Chocolate remained a beverage until the mid 19th Century when it was combined with sugar, resulting in new textures and sensations. The first chocolate bar was made in Britain by Joseph Fry, who pressed a paste made of cocoa powder and sugar into a mold. This process was further developed by John Cadbury, another Brit, two years later. It was the German-born Swiss confectioner Henry Nestle who first made the first milk chocolate bar in 1875 by adding milk to the traditional recipe, resulting in a creamier taste and smoother texture. It was in the second half of the 19th Century that European scientists began researching the pharmacological properties of cacao.

By the end of the 19th Century, chocolate ceased to exist as a luxury item and began reaching the masses. Chocolate ice cream was invented in Iowa in 1921. White chocolate appeared in 1930. During World War II, renowned American chocolatier Milton Hershey was commissioned to produce a special chocolate bar to be used by American troops as a combat ration. As more unique products containing chocolate have been introduced to the marketplace (KitKat bars in 1935 and M&Ms in 1941, for example) chocolate continues to reign supreme around the world as the ultimate sweet treat.

Meet Mexico’s Most Beloved Granny

Abuelita (granny, in English) is without a doubt one of the most popular brands of traditional Mexican chocolate bars. Have you ever wondered who’s the face that graces the packaging? Meet legendary Mexican actress, Sara Garcia. She became renowned during Mexico’s Golden Age of Cinema during the 40s and 50s for her portrayal of the quintessential strict-but-lovable grandmother in a number of films and a handful of soap operas.

She was born in Orizaba, Veracruz, 1895 and began her film career at 22 while working as a teacher. Her diction and voice opened doors for her from the get-go, and she was immediately cast for smaller roles in film and theatrical productions. When she turned 30, concerned about her ability to remain viable as an aging actress, she decided to have all her teeth removed so that her mouth looked more like that of an older woman. The sacrifice paid off. 

In 1940, she was suggested for the role of doña Panchita in director Fernando de Fuentes’ film, Allá en el Trópico (There in the Tropics). At the time, the director felt she was too young for her age, but having had a custom wig designed for her, she wowed during her screen test. Her portrayal was so well received by the audience that from that moment on, she became known as la abuelita de Mexico (Mexico’s granny).

In 1973, Sara García signed a commercial agreement to give her image to the factory of Chocolates Azteca, which was later bought by the Nestlé brand. Since then her image is displayed on the label of Mexico’s traditional Abuelita chocolate. She died in 1980, leaving behind a legacy of over 200 films and soap operas.

Look Mom! A Rattle! (Not…)

Chances are you’ve spotted one of these rattle-like contraptions at the supermarket or one of the local municipal markets. Although it rattles, it is not a toy. In fact, the molinillo, or wood-turned whisk, is a staple utensil in the traditional Mexican kitchen to this day. It is used to stir hot beverages, such as chocolate and atole, a traditional corn and corn masa-based beverage. They are created throughout Mexico by woodturning artisans and some feature beautiful, intricate carvings. The narrow end of the molinillo is held between the palms and rotated by rubbing the palms together. This helps combine the ingredients and creates the froth in the drink.

Some historians claim that the molinillo was invented by Spanish conquistadors looking for a practical way to top their hot chocolate with a layer of froth. However, evidence suggests that pre-Hispanic cultures, particularly the Aztecs, used a similar instrument before the Spanish settled in Mexico, or New Spain, as it was known at the time.

Molinillos are generally inexpensive, practical and easy to pack, so they make excellent souvenirs!

Chocolate Oddities

We tend to think that chocolate is available in three varieties: dark, milk and white—which isn’t chocolate per se, but rather a confection made from cocoa butter. Apparently, it’s time to make room for… pink chocolate! Zurich-based Barry Callebaut, the world’s largest based cocoa processor, has apparently spent the last 13 years trying to produce naturally pink chocolate out of ruby cocoa beans.

Each cacao tree produces approximately 2,500 beans, and it takes 400 cocoa beans to make one pound of the good stuff.

The Aztec emperor Montezuma drank 50 cups of cacao a day from a golden chalice. It was the Spanish conquistadors who introduced sugar to the beverage and drove Europe nuts when they returned to the Old Continent with the sweetened version.

Chocolate can make dogs and cats ill—so, no tastings for your furry companions, and more for you!

German chocolate cake doesn’t come from Germany. It was named for American baker Sam German, and it was originally called German’s chocolate cake.

Despite its Mesoamerican roots, most cacao—nearly 70 percent of the world’s supply—comes from Africa.

Why does chocolate melt in your mouth? Because it is the only edible substance to melt around 93ºF, just below our body temperature.

The Spanish phrase, como agua para chocolate is used to describe someone who is really pissed off, and not two people (or things) meant for each other, as one might conclude from watching the successful 1992 Mexican film with the same name (Like Water for Chocolate).

Other awesome films in which chocolate is prominent include Julie and Julia (2009), Chocolat (2000) and, of course, Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971).

Death by chocolate? No problem! Chocolate contains high levels of theobromine, a powerful stimulant of the central nervous system that can cause heart failure, seizures, acute kidney damage and dehydration. A lethal dosage of chocolate for a human being is about 22lb.

You Say Chocolate, They Said Xocolatl

The word chocolate is spelled the same in English and Spanish. But did you know it can be traced back to the ancient Aztecs? Prior to the Spanish conquest, Nahuatl was the language used by this ancient civilization and throughout most of central Mexico. Early conquistadors used Spanish writing to understand the language. As such, many Nahuatl words became part of the Spanish vocabulary, with several even crossing over to English.

As such, chocolate comes from the Nahuatl root word chocolātl, which meant “beverage made by heating cocoa with water or milk.” Aguacate, the Spanish word for avocado, comes from the Nahuatl āhuacatl, which actually meant ‘testicle.’ Guacamole also has roots in Nahuatl, and is a combination of āhuacatl and molli, the Nahuatl word for ‘sauce.’ Can you guess where the word coyote comes from? Or tomato?

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