With the Olympics upon us (and Valentine’s day just a couple of weeks away), chocolate is sure to be top of mind. After all, what could be better, when watching to winter Olympics in cold, snowy Sochi, than having a steamy, frothy cup of hot chocolate in hand? And what better than a recipe from the country where chocolate originated, Mexico!?
History of Chocolate
(Note: the following is excerpted from Celebraciones Mexicanas: History, Traditions and Recipes, by this columnist and co-authored with Adriana Almazan Lahl.)
Cacoa beverages dates back to 1900 BC. The first chocolate drink is, and thought to have been created around 2,000 years ago by the Mayans 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.
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” (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 the native Aztec tongue of 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.
Mexican Chocolate, La Diferencia
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. Two of the more popular brands are Ibarra and Abuelita, but there are new, artisanal options as well.
Here, in San Francisco, we are fortunate to have access to artisanal chocolate that is not only superior in quality, but is also available through socially-responsible retailers who make it their mission to pay fair prices and support indigenous farmers in the countries of origin.
Rancho Gordo Mexican Chocolate
Using 100 percent Mexican cacao, Rancho Gordo’s stoneground chocolate beans are toasted by hand on a wood-fired clay comal, in the village of Xochistlahuaca, Guerrero. “It’s handmade, completely, by one woman from start to finish,” says Rancho Gordo owner Steve Sando. There's also no white sugar -- this chocolate combines only cacao, cinnamon and piloncillo (unrefined Mexican cane sugar) that's also made near the same Guerrero village. “From the beautiful state of Guerrero in Mexico, a cooperative of women grow their own cacao and then harvest it, toast it on clay comales (pans) and then stone grind it with piloncillo (an unrefined sugar) and canela, the famous soft cinnamon preferred in Mexico. The results are chocolate tablets not quite like anything else you've had. Whether it's for a traditional mole or just a cup of hot chocolate, the rich, dense chocolate flavor is intense, delicious and uniquely New World. Available in San Francisco at Rancho Gordo's recently-opened location at the Ferry Building Marketplace.
Chocolate production in Mexico, as well as in other Latin American countries, has taken on a significance of its own, as can be seen in this video from the Perennial Plate:
Dandelion Chocolates in San Francisco’s Mission District is a is a bean-to-bar chocolate factory that is dedicated to sourcing high quality beans and carefully crafting their products in tiny batches, bringing out the individual flavors and nuances of each bean. For co-founder Todd Masonis this means actually traveling to to Venezuela, the Dominican Republic, and Madagascar, meeting farmers, building personal relationships and negotiating fair prices. Each of their chocolate bars are “single-origin”, meaning that the beans in the bar come from the same country; the only added ingredient is sugar.
To create your own Mexican Hot Chocolate at home, you may opt for using the traditional Mexican Chocolate discs available through Rancho Gordo, or 70% cacao with no added ingredients, such as the chocolate you'll find at Dandelion. Below are recipes for both methods.
The authentic, old-school method for making Mexican hot chocolate calls for several kitchen tools that you will want to have if you are accumulating a Mexican kitchen anyway. The first is a Molcajete y Tejolote or traditional Mexican mortar and pestle, which you will use to combine your piloncillo and chocolate, or to pound your Mexican chocolate disc into a semi-powder form. You'll also use a molinillo (available in San Francisco's Mission district at La Palma on 24th St. or on-line at uncommongoods.com) or hollow wooden stirrer, which is similar in use to a whisk, but so much more beautiful. Note that although we traditionally use milk to make hot chocolate, it is common in Mexico to make it with water, as well. This actually let's the pure chocolate flavor come, through-- try it!
Mexican Hot Chocolate Recipe from Celebraciones Mexicanas
2 discs (3 oz each) of Mexican chocolate, finely chopped
8 cups of water or milk
½ tbsp freshly ground cinnamon
Place a thick-bottomed pot on a medium-high flame, add water or milk, bring to a boil and add chocolate and cinnamon. Whisk vigorously with a Mexican molinillo or a whisk until frothy.
Traditional Mexican Hot Chocolate Recipe from Celebraciones Mexicanas
8 cups water or milk
2 cinnamon sticks
1 vanilla pod, split open
8 tbsp sugar
11 oz chocolate of your choice, finely chopped
½ tbsp ground Mexican cinnamon
1½ tbsp cornstarch (optional)
And for an extra taste experience, experiment with adding just a hint of ancho chile powder. Serve in a jarro de baro or clay mug, also available at La Palma.