Visit Oaxaca City anytime and you will find Oaxacans busily roasting, grinding and forming the fruit of this special tree into cakes to be turned into xocolatl — “bitter water” in Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs.
The roots of the cacao tree run deep. It was cultivated and consumed extensively throughout ancient Mesoamerica, and ceramic vessels have been discovered with cacao residues dating back to 1750 B.C. on the Veracruz coast (where vanilla was happily growing away at the same time, you will recall)… and even farther back on the Pacific Coast of Chiapas, as long ago as 1900 B.C.!
The clever Mayans took the tree from the rainforest and grew it in their back yards. They loved to harvest, roast and grind the beans, blending them with vanilla, maize, chiles, herbs and achiote to make a rich, foamy, spicy drink.
By 1400 A.D. the Aztecs had taken over a good chunk of Mesoamerica, and they traded the Mayans for cacao, and demanded the beans as a tax. Drinking xocolatl was an important part of Aztec life, reserved for the wealthy and for religious occasions, and it is said that Moctezuma himself consumed around 50 golden goblets of the elixir each day. Aztec temples and palaces were adorned with sculptures of the cacao pod, which was a symbol of fertility. A hundred beans might have bought an animal or even a slave.
The more democratic Pueblo people of the Southwest U.S.traded for Mesoamerican cacao from 900-1400 A.D., and all members of their society enjoyed drinking chocolate. However, until the 16th century chocolate was unknown in Europe. Of course, after the Aztec conquest it quickly became a favorite at the Spanish court, and the rest is history…
Today about two thirds of cacao consumed worldwide is grown in West Africa. The U.S. alone consumes approximately 3 BILLION pounds per year, and worldwide consumption is more than a million TONS.
If you’re lucky enough to go to Oaxaca, be sure to pick up some freshly roasted and ground cakes of rustic chocolate! If all you can get is a commercial variety like Abuelita, it’ll do until you can get to Oaxaca! Just shop or break a 4 oz. tablet into your blender and add 16 oz. boiling milk or water (if you don’t want it as rich–I like it this way in the afternoon). Whiz away until a good head of foam develops, sit back and enjoy the food of the gods…