The World Longest Love Affair

By Dale Hoyt Palfrey



It began nearly five hundred years ago. Shortly after arriving at Tenochtitlán in the fall of 1519, Hernán Cortés and the conquistadores were granted an audience with Moctezuma at his breakfast table. They found the Aztec ruler sipping an exotic drink called chocolatl (derived from the Nahuatl words xoco, bitter and atl, water). Made from ground cacao beans boiled in water, flavored with vanilla and other tropical spices, and chilled with bits of snow from nearby mountain tops, the pungent beverage was, the Spaniards reported, “of a very exciting nature.”

Chocolatl was esteemed as an invigorating refreshment and its consumption was permitted only to those in the highest echelons of Aztec society. While there were different recipes for preparing chocolatl, calling for various spices and types of cacao, all required beating the concoction until a thick, nearly solid froth formed on the top. The drink was served in a xícara, an elaborate, gold goblet on a base covered with jaguar skin, accompanied by a tortoise shell spoon for eating the toothsome foam.

Medicinally chocolatl was used to alleviate abdominal pain, as an antidote for poisons, and as a medium for administering other remedies. When made from green cacao the drink was considered a potent hallucinogen and aphrodisiac. Chocolatl and cacao also figured in certain religious ceremonies.

The cacao tree, a small evergreen of the genus Theobroma -Food for the Gods- thrives in Mexico’s wet tropical regions. The tree’s fruits, when ripe, are 6-14 inch red pods containing a mass of pulp and 25-50 bitter white seeds that turn brown when exposed to the air. A pound of cacao averages about 200 beans.

Cacao was a highly valued commodity in Pre-Columbian Mexico. The great lords of the Maya culture cultivated large cacao plantations. They exchanged their crops for feathers, jade and other precious goods in the principal commercial centers of Mesoamérica. The buying power of cacao was such that a dozen beans more than suff iced to purchase a slave or to procure an evening of pleasure with a prostitute.

Moctezuma, who ruled a vast tribute-state, collected huge quantities of cacao twice a year from vassal communities. Aztec consumers often used cacao as currency for making purchases in the bustling tianguis (market place). Some historical accounts refer to rogues who counterfeited cacao beans from avocado pits and doctored inferior grains to increase their value, though they risked severe punishment if caught.

Cacao and the other exotic ingredients for chocolatl were among the New World treasures Cortés sent back to his sovereign, Charles V. The Spanish took a great liking to the Aztec drink, especially once they discovered that the addition of sugar made it far more palatable. Dubbing it chocolate, they jealously guarded the secret of its preparation from other Europeans for three quarters of a century.

During this period, according to one account, British pirates captured a treasure-laden Spanish ship and promptly tossed the entire load of cacao overboard, mistaking it for sheep’s dung. By 1606, however, the ltalians were quaffing chocolate, followed in short order by the Austrians and the French.

In the 1650’s an enterprising Frenchman devised a method for milling cacao into solid cakes, which simplified the preparation of chocolate. He opened a specialty shop in London to sell this novel product though, at 10 to 15 shillings a pound, it was a luxury only the rich could afford. Well-heeled Europeans soon flocked to fashionable chocolate houses in London, Amsterdam and other continental capitals. The English, circa 1700, further improved chocolate by adding milk to the drink. Finally, in the mid-19th century, the Swiss invented a blending process that permitted the creation of chocolate candy.

Around the globe people of all stations now consume chocolate in myriad forms and astonishing quantities. The US spends nearly a billion dollars annually on cocoa imports. Chocolate remains an important staple here in Mexico. It is used to make a wide array of confections and is a key ingredient of the piquant mole sauces of Puebla and Oaxaca. Hot chocolate, a popular accompaniment to a light evening repast, is traditionally whipped until frothy with a molinillo, a ringed wooden beater invented by the Aztecs. The definitive recipe for preparing this classic Mexican beverage may be found in chapter nine of Laura Esquivel’s delightful romantic novel Like Water for Chocolate.

The world’s love affair with chocolate is one that is likely to last forever for, as one recent ad put it, “To some chocolate is as good as love. To others it is better.”

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