On our recent trip to Mexico, the birthplace of chocolate, it was only natural (and fair) that we replaced our morning tea with a mug of hot chocolate. Chocolate originated in Mesoamerica, and archaeological evidence shows that people were drinking chocolate in Mexico as early as 1900 BC. The Mayan and Aztec people called it xocolatl, the basis for the modern word for chocolate in most languages. Xocolatl reputedly means ‘bitter water’ in Nathuatl, the language of the ancient Aztecs, and if you have ever had the opportunity to drink freshly ground chocolate, without sugar added, you will understand why.
In the little village of Ek Balam, in the middle of the Yucatan Penninsula in Mexico we visited Guadalupe to learn about making hot chocolate from cacao beans (though really they are seeds). Guadalupe lives, with her extended family (many daughters and grandchildren), in a series of small wooden houses each with a steeply thatched straw roof. When we arrived Guadalupe was in the yard beyond the house used as the kitchen scrubbing the metate in preparation for grinding the cacao beans.
The metate, a large oblong concave grinding stone often made of volcanic rock, is essential in Mexican cuisine. It is used for grinding lime soaked maize to make the masa (or dough) for tortillas, for grinding toasted chillies for mole and of course for grinding cacao beans to make chocolate. It is still an expensive piece of kitchen equipment for many Mexicans, often a woman would be given a metate on her wedding day that she would use all her life and then hand down to her own daughters (or sons)! We visited kitchens in cooking schools were they had several metate, one for corn, another for chillies. Guadalupe had just one and would scrub it well between uses to keep chilli and chocolate separate.
After greetings we were ushered to stools by a low table in the kitchen, a separate little house where the wooden walls and roof were thick with a layer of black tar from the cooking fire in one corner of the room. There was plenty of ventilation though from the open doors and the gaps between the slats of wood, so it wasn’t at all smoky. Guadalupe had some already fermented cacao seeds, the seeds need to be fermented to develop their flavour. So, chocolate is essentially another fermented food!
We roasted the whole seeds on a metal comal (a large griddle pan) over a high heat for a couple of minutes until they changed from a reddish brown colour to a dark brown colour and the skins shucked off easily when we rubbed the seeds between our fingers. With the skins removed the cacao seeds were a beautiful glossy dark brown, this is what is used for those fancy cacao nibs that you might sprinkle on your morning porridge. With the beans roasted and skinned the hard work begins, grinding the beans to a fine powder for the drinking chocolate.
We placed the beans on the metate and then using a sort of smearing backward and forward motion with the mano, a hand held stone shaped like a rolling pin, we crushed the beans to a rough powder. This took us quite a long time, which I’m sure says more about our inexpert grinding skills than anything else. Every time we stopped for a breather (it was hot), Guadalupe would have a look at the metate and say “mas, mas” (“more, more”). Eventually the beans were ground to Guadalupe’s satisfaction and relieved, we collapsed back onto our stools!
Freshly boiled water was poured on top of the freshly ground chocolate and then whisked with a molinillo, a Mexican wooden turned whisk. This is used to create the froth on top of the hot chocolate, by rapidly rubbing the stick of the whisk between your open palms. The technique is to hold one open palm still and then to rapidly spin the stick using your other palm.
The taste was dark, bitter, chocolatey and as it is made with water much thinner than you expect from the milky chocolate drinks we are used to. It was much more like drinking a coffee than a hot chocolate. Jo added a little sugar to hers and I drank mine sugar free. These days many Mexicans (who is our experience have a sweet tooth) drink chocolate with sugar and other flavourings added (most commonly cinnamon and vanilla). After the cacao beans have been ground to a paste, sugar and vanilla or cinnamon will be added and the resulting mixture is shaped into small tablets that can then be added to hot water or milk to make a sweeter and more aromatic chocolate drink.