It’s about time we talk about the real reason we came to Mexico: it’s the birthplace of chocolate.
We already knew that they take chocolate pretty seriously in Oaxaca so we made it a point to sample every variation and every flavor we came across. But when we saw a sign advertising a half-day seminar entitled “Chocolate: Food of the Gods”, we knew we had to join. For scholarly research purposes of course.
The course was led by a Canadian named Chris who works for the Toronto-based chocolatier, ChocoSol. The owner is a Oaxacan native who moved north a long time ago, and has sent Chris back to his homeland to source ingredients and interact with the community. Chris’s passion and sense of purpose are very evident. Not only does he take pride in finding the best ingredients through his deep ties to the local community, but he tries to give back and use the chocolate business to create jobs while strengthening the culture and ecology here in Oaxaca. He asks questions like “how can we go beyond ‘fair trade’?” while sharing his love for everything chocolate.
While this post isn’t specifically about the seminar we took with Chris, it’s certainly where we got most of our information and had the opportunity to try many types of chocolate that we had never heard of!
The first thing to know is that to Mexicans, chocolate is considered more of a drink than a food. In ancient times dark chocolate was mixed with ground chiles to create a spicy, bitter drink that royalty drank during important ceremonies. But once the Europeans arrived with their sweet tooth that all changed and now most chocolate drinks are sweet and not spicy.
A common breakfast in Oaxaca begins with a big bowl of hot chocolate made with either water or milk. We always had it with water because it was so rich to begin with. The chocolate is stone-ground so it is a little gritty, unlike the smooth European-style chocolate we normally have. And the drink is frothed up with the help of a special whisk called a molinillo. Molinillos are made of a single piece of wood and can be quite ornate.
Another drink is called chocolate atole and normally it is reserved for special occasions but it is now becoming available in the markets of Oaxaca. It’s made by fermenting white cocoa beans (not the same as white chocolate) in the ground for 30 – 90 days and then mixing them with red cocoa beans (red cocoa is what we normally eat and drink). Corn is added to that concoction to make it thicker and smoother. It’s pretty unique stuff!
Tejate is a cold chocolate drink that’s made with cocoa beans, corn, the seeds of the mamay fruit, and flor de cacao flowers. The fat from the cocoa rises to the top and creates a tasty, buttery layer on the surface of the drink. It’s common to have this mid-day as a little pick-me-up.
Eating chocolate is not that common though it’s becoming more popular, especially with visitors from other countries. You can find chocolate that’s very sweet or incredibly bitter (100% cocoa with no sugar) and mixed with ingredients like cinnamon, almonds, cranberries, mint, and even cardamom seeds (which was surprisingly delicious). We also visited a store that made chocolate truffles with local flavors like mezcal, cactus fruit, and grasshoppers (also surprisingly delicious).
And you may have heard of Oaxaca’s famous mole negro, which features chocolate as one of its ingredients. Here in Oaxaca there are many types of moles (pronounced MO-lay). They are all made with dozens of ingredients including spices, seeds, and chile peppers, of course. Mole negro is the only one that contains chocolate and it has a distinctly rich and bitter flavor.
So that’s a brief overview of what kind of chocolate you can expect in Mexico. A lot of these flavors and drinks are unlike anything we’ve ever had in America. We suggest that you get to Oaxaca and try them for yourself! And if you do visit, check out the chocolate seminar to learn a lot more about the cultural and religious importance of the humble cacao bean. It’s like eating two thousand years of history!