Chocolate is available to hungry consumers in a variety of tantalizing culinary mediums. It is prepared in bars and disks, as a dusting on nuts, or poured as a silky sauce over creamy desserts. Although innovative chefs will continue to produce chocolate in a myriad of traditional and unorthodox ways, chocolate in liquid form will likely remain the most cherished mode of consumption.
This begs the question, what makes liquid chocolate special? To be sure, creaminess and thickness make the drink seem especially delightful. Flavor through added ingredients plays an important factor as well. For the Aztec and Maya civilizations, and even the early European culture, what made drinking chocolate a true indulgence was its froth and foam.
According to the records of Berdardino de Sahagún, a Fransciscan friar whose written records provide first-hand insight to Aztec culture and customs, “cacao well made and beautiful” was “smooth, frothy, vermilion, red, and pure, without much corn masa” (Presilla 20).
Before the frothing process can begin, a mixture of ground cacao beans, corn “flour,” and water must be combined to create a patty-like substance. Then, water is added slowly and carefully until the chocolate is a liquid. At this point, froth is brought forth by transferring the drink from one vessel to another, usually from great heights. It is assumed that “during the pre-Conquest past, this was the exclusive method, all over Mesoamerica” (Coe & Coe 85). Below is an image of a woman engaged in such a process.
To better understand how the Mesoamericans drank their chocolate, and more specifically, to better appreciate the effort required to transform cacao from a gruel-like drink to a cherished elixir, I attempted the ancient preparation. Using a Taza Chocolate disc (vanilla flavor), Maseca Corn “Flour,” and a little bit of milk, I made a mixture that filled three-quarters of a small mug.
I collected the ingredients, chopped the chocolate and made a corn flour paste, keeping in mind that the Aztecs believed, “the effort would go for naught if the mixture had been cheapened by too much corn or thinned with too much water.” (Presilla 20)
After the ingredients were well combined, I poured the mixture from mug to mug.
The height from which the chocolate was poured in the video above is likely not the most authentic representation of how the Maya and Aztec created froth. According to the records of Sahagún, “after straining, it is lifted up high so that it will pour in a good stream, and this is what raises the froth” (Presilla 20). This type of shoulder-height, floor-to-ceiling pouring is a difficult process. In my preliminary frothing attempts, I found that as the height from which I poured the chocolate increased, the difficulty and associated mess did also.
Ultimately, a small froth rose in the chocolate.
The finished product confirmed the Aztec penchant for froth and validated the effort expended to produce it. The richness and thickness of the chocolate contrasted with the lightness of the froth, suggests that truly, liquid chocolate was then (and now) a beverage fit for “lords [to] drink” (Presilla 20).
The True History of Chocolate. 3rd ed. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2013. 85.
Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate Revised: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 2009. 20.
Image source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_chocolate (labeled for non-commercial re-use.)