Chocolate is something Mexicans have a deep sense of pride in. It’s a gift they’ve imparted to the entire world. And what a gift it is!
The scientific name for chocolate is Theobroma Cacao, meaning, the food of the gods.
Cacao is a seed from the tropical fruit that is born from the Cacaotero tree, a tree that grows in tropical areas. The Cacaotero tree is indigenous to the Mexican states of Tabasco
Campeche, and Chiapas, the Pacific Coast, and almost all the areas where the ancient Mayas lived.
The Legend of Chocolate in México
According to a Toltec legend, Quetzalcóatl (a Mesoamerican god), gave men a gift, a tree called Cacao. Quetzalcóatl gave some cacao seeds to the Tolteca tribe (These people used to live in the south of México. Most of them resided in what is now known as the state of Tabasco.) so the Toltecs could be well feed, wise, studious, craftsmen and artisans.
The legend continues that Quetzacóatl stole the cacao tree from the paradise where the gods lived and then planted it in Tula, an ancient city located in what is now the state of Hidalgo. After he planted the tree, Quetzalcóatl asked the god Tlaloc for rain so the tree could grow and feed the people.
After that, Quetzalcóatl went to visit the goddess Xochiquétzal, the goddess of love and beauty. He asked her to give the tree beautiful flowers. With the passing of time, the tree eventually bloomed and produced our now beloved cacao.
Cacoa pods and seeds after roasting.
Chocolate in Pre-Hispanic Times
The Olmecas (1500 to 400 B.C.) were the first humans to taste cacao. They drank the ground cacao beans mixed with water, species, and herbs. The Olmecas were the first to cultivate cacao in México, followed by the Mayas (600 B.C.), and then the Aztecs (1400 B.C.). The Aztecs prepared a bitter beverage with cacao that had an intense flavor. The beverage was called techocolat.
Among the tribes in America, chocolate became a symbol of wealth. It was consumed with water and only soldiers or people of high society could drink cocoa. It was also used for religious rituals dedicated to their god Quetzalcoatl, and the god Chak Ek Chuah, and was also drunk in rituals like funerals for the wealthy. The cacao´s shell was used as currency for bartering. For the indigenous people, cacao had more value than gold.
At that time chocolate started to spread throughout México from Tabasco to Michoacan, Campeche, Chiapas, and Colima.
Did You Know?
Because this beverage made of cacao was a symbol of wealth it was served in a bowl made from a gourd and finished with a handful of gold or silver powder.
Cacao eventually became the currency of the Aztecs. It is believed that Moctezuma accumulated 100 million cacao beans making him one of the wealthiest among the Aztecs.
During this time, cacao started to grow wild in different regions throughout Mexico, and people also started to cultivate it. There were many varieties of cacao, however, the three main varieties were: Quauhcahuatl, Xochicahuatl y Tlacacahuatl. The most valuable cacao at that time were those cultivated in Tabasco and Soconusco, Chiapas. They were treasured because of the size of their seeds, their flavor, and their aroma.
Two Chocolate Recipes from the Ancient Mexican People
One way chocolate was prepared was by mixing cacao with zapote, or mamey seeds, and then mixing that mixture with corn. This paste was shaped into small balls that would later be given to warriors in hot water so they could enjoy the very delicious hot chocolate-like beverage.
Another way they used to prepare chocolate was by mixing the cacao with honey or flowers, then adding Mexican pepper (pimienta gorda or xocosuchil in the Nahuatl language), achiote (a red fruit cultivated in the tropical areas of America), hierba santa (a plant that was mainly cultivated in Oaxaca and Veracruz, used to make tamales, fish, and other dishes. It was used medicinally as well.) and pinole (pinolli in Nahuatl is corn flour, toasted).
The Spaniards and Their Encounter with Cacao
In the XVI century, during his fourth trip to the Americas, Cristobal Colon (Christopher Columbus), being close to Honduras ran into an indigenous canoe full of cacao seeds. But, Colon didn’t pay attention to it. He didn’t see the value they had to the indigenous people.
In 1519, Hernan Cortés while in Tenochtitlan, encountered Cacao. We know this because of the letters Hernan Cortés wrote to the king of Spain, Carlos V. In those letters, Cortes described that cacao was used in two different ways, one was as a beverage that helped people recover strength and energy during long walks (which his army needed because of all the walking they had to do in order to conquer all the areas they went in México and America). He also mentioned it was exchanged as currency.
Initially, the Spaniards didn’t appreciate cacao as food, but they did value it as money. The Spaniards didn’t like cacao because of the way the indigenous prepared it. It had a bitter and spicy taste. It wasn’t until 1530 that the Spaniards started to add some sugar to the beverage making it quite a delightful treat!
Some years later, the first cacao shipment arrived in Spain. The Spaniards continued using cacao as currency throughout South America up until the XIX century. The taxes the indigenous were required to pay to the king were paid with cacao.
A conversion table was used to tell people what the equivalent of one cacao bean was in their local currency so no one would be cheated. The conversion table was used in markets or when a slave was bought. Cacao was so valuable that people would even try to fake cacao just as money is counterfeited today!
New recipes eventually started to come. The Spaniards started to use milk, honey, sugar, and different spices along with cacao. They also used it as medicine. They even considered it to be an aphrodisiac.
In the early years of cacao in Europe, it could exclusively be found in Spain. The monks were in charge of spreading chocolate to all the monasteries. In the XVII century, a beverage made with hot chocolate became a delicacy. Next, the nobility began enjoying chocolate as a delicious snack. Their guests were offered hot chocolate accompanied by biscuits or other sweet items. If it was winter they would drink it close to a fire.
Chocolate in our Days
In 1828, Mr. Coenraad Van Houten, a Dutch chemist and chocolate entrepreneur, used a chemical in cocoa powder to extract the butter, making the cacao powder more versatile. He was able to neutralize the acidity in the cacao making the flavor milder and more liquid-soluble. In 1875, Mr. Daniels Peters made it possible for chocolate to be mixed with milk, giving way to the beloved chocolate bar.
The first chocolate factories were in Europe. France and Italy became known for having the best chocolate factories. In México, chocolate factories wouldn’t be found until after 1880 during Porfirio Díaz’s presidency. Porfirio Diaz loved French culture and started to bring chocolate bars and other varieties of chocolate to Mexico. It was only available to the Mexican aristocracy at that time, however. It wasn’t until after the Mexican revolution that chocolate became a common food among the people enjoyed by all.
In 1919, Raymundo and Francisco Gónzalez, two fleshly brothers, created the first chocolate factory in México in the state of Veracruz. They created a chocolate bar called Carlos V, named after a king who ruled over both Spain and Germany ruled from 1517-1556. People in México love this candy! Another favorite was chocolate known as “Abuelita”. This chocolate is dissolved in water or milk and made into delicious hot chocolate. In 1970, it was acquired by a U.S. company.
In our time, the states of Tabasco, Chiapas, and Oaxaca are the biggest producers of cacao in México. In Tabasco and Chiapas, you can find what is known as the “Cacao Route”. Visitors are taken to different farms or ranches where cacao is produced enjoying the stories and history of the cacao and the local places while taking in the beautiful scenery.
Tejate - an incredibly delicious health drink!
Platillos Mexicanos Hechos con Chocolate - Mexican Dishes Made with Chocolate
Mole: Is a dish that was created during the colonial period. It’s made with pieces of chicken or guajolote (turkey) covered with a salsa made of chocolate with chile and spices, ground nuts, and almonds.
Tamales de chocolate: Made with cacao powder mixed with nuts, raisins, or almonds. All of this is wrapped in a corn leaf and covered with a sauce made from red fruits.
Pozol: A fermented beverage made with ground corn, banana leaves, and cacao, sweetened with sugar cane.
Tejate: A traditional beverage from Oaxaca made with toasted mamey* bone (the pit of the fruit), ground corn, fermented cacao, rosita de cacao**, and sugar.
*Mamey is a fruit with brown skin and bright orange flesh. It’s found mostly in the states of Chiapas, Veracruz y Tabasco. The name mamey in Nahuatl is tetzontzapotl that means “zapote color of tezontle”.
**Rosita de cacao is actually not related to cacao at all. It grows on a different tree. Its indigenous name is Xochicacahualt. The tree can reach 25-30 meters high. The color of the flower is white but when the flowers are dry they turn red. It’s an incredibly fragrant flower. Its aroma can last for a year even after the blossoms have dried. This is why the flower has been used to make perfumes, but also it is eatable.
Tanchuca: Made with corn, anise, and chocolate. In some other places like the state of Sonora, it is made with wheat flour, cocoa, and piloncillo.
Chorote: A traditional beverage from Tabasco, made with cocoa powder and cooked corn. Honey, coconut, and sometimes chiles are added.
Kinds of Cacao
The fruit of the cacao tree has a hard shell. It’s long and similar to a football ball in shape. It grows directly from the tree. A tree can give up to 15 fruits and every fruit can give between 20 and 60 cacao seeds.
There are 3 kinds of cacao:
• Criollo: Of all the cacao that is produced in the world only 10% is Criollo. Criollo is only used to make the finest and most exquisite chocolate.
• Forastero: It is the most common cacao used to make chocolate bars. It is easy to care for and maintain. 70% of the cacao produced in the world is Forastero.
• Trinitario: It is a cross between Criollo and Forastero. It has the strength of Foster cacao and the aroma and flavor of Criollo.
Join us for an artisanal chocolate tasting!
Don’t miss the opportunity to try as many chocolate and chocolate-based dishes while you’re here in Mexico. You won’t be disappointed eating the food of the gods!
Contact us to arrange an experience that includes a chocolate tasting with a local chocolatier. ¡Vamos a comer! Let’s eat!
Written by David Herrera
Translated by Annamaria Alfonso