I learned to make chocolate in my first week in Oaxaca; I am all about learning the essential skills! Obviously, it is a very important ability to have anywhere, but especially in Mexico, where chocolate was originally created, and where it still plays a very important role in daily life, festivals and celebrations.
Chocolate was a key element in both Mayan and Aztec royal and religious events, and its earliest documented use dates back to 1100 BC. The cacao tree was thought to be given to humans from the gods, and so only those of royal blood were allowed to eat chocolate. Priests presented cocoa beans as offerings to the gods and served cocoa drinks during sacred ceremonies. All of the areas in Mexico that grew cocoa beans and were conquered by the Aztecs were ordered to pay them as a tax.
Within Mexico, Oaxaca is renowned for its chocolate quality. Chocolate is used a main ingredient in Oaxaca’s famous moles, in cakes, and also drunk as chocolate caliente or hot chocolate. It has a completely different taste to the sugary chocolate bars we can buy in shops, and if you bought a box of chocolate discs here, it would be to make hot chocolate or mole with, not to eat as is.
Making the chocolate
To start you need cacao beans. These come from the Theobroma cacao plant, mainly cultivated in Chiapas and Oaxaca states; the beans are picked and cleaned, fermented, dried, roasted and packed into sacks to be distributed. You can buy cacao by the kilo (like coffee beans) in most mercados (markets) here.
We bought 2 kilos and then spent most of the afternoon sitting at a table at home, companionably shelling the cacao until dusk and we realised we couldn’t actually see what was shell and what was cacao nib anymore.
It was a little surreal to realise that this family has been doing this same process for their entire lives, passed to them from their parents and grandparents, right down from the Mayan and Aztec periods in Mexico.
The next day we took the cacao nibs, 4kg of sugar, a large handful of almonds and some cinnamon sticks (think branches rather than the quills we are used to) down into the central city (centro) area to get it ground into chocolate.
Oaxaca’s most famous chocolate maker, Mayordomo is where you can buy pre-made mole or chocolate discs, but for 20 pesos, they will also let people use their machines to grind their own ingredients into chocolate. You could also add orange peel, chile, anise, coffee etc to the ingredients – which is sometimes done when making chocolate for special occasions.
The chocolate ingredients are ground by the first machine which mixes everything together and creates a grainy sludge. This sludge is then fed into the second machine which re-mixes and heats the mixture, removing the liquid and producing a more solid chocolate.
The chocolate is then placed inside a large plastic bag which you take home, and then wait for it to cool down enough so you can handle it. Once it is cooler, it is traditional to fashion the chocolate into golf ball sized balls, which are left to set overnight and can then be stored for several months (or however long it take you to get through it all).
The photo above is one plate of chocolate balls. We ended up with about 8 plates in total.
Mexican hot chocolate or chocolate caliente is made by dropping 2 of these chocolate balls (one per person) into hot milk or water on the stove, and serving once they have dissolved into the milk. Traditional Mexican hot chocolate is served frothy, which is created by pouring from the pot into cup numerous times, or by using a whisk.
Mexican chocolate has a complex, spicy and rich taste, even though it consists of only 4 ingredients. Milk and refined sugar was added to chocolate recipes in Europe after Columbus took cacao back, but in Mexico, chocolate today is made as it always has been.
Making chocolate is a very quick process – especially once you have finished shelling the cacao beans, which is really the only part that takes time. But as a social event, even that is an excuse to sit, to chat, to practice your Spanish and to spend time with your family or friends – and the end result is fantastic.