In modern times, hot chocolate is enjoyed by people around the world. The most familiar types found in the grocery store are made up of a pre-sweetened powder that comes in a small package and may or may not contain 15% cocoa depending on the type of drink. Other types of drinking chocolate, such as Abuelita, come in pressed chocolate bars that are then dissolved in milk. Today, hot cocoa is available to people of every social and economic class. However, historically chocolate drinks were made in a very different manner, and they were most often only available to the elites.
The cultivation of cacao began as early as 1900 BC with the Olmec civilization (Presilla, 2001, p.10), but the oldest known cacao recipes come from the Maya and the Aztec civilizations. For the Maya civilization, cacao was available to people of every social and economic class, although little evidence remains of the drinking vessels used by the less affluent members of society (Presilla, 2001, p. 12) As cacao is difficult to grow, it is likely that the more affluent members of society had easier access to drinking cacao due to its rarity. Maya drinking chocolate was often made from water that contained the starch of lime-treated corn mixed with the cacao beans that had been ground into a paste. Mayan cacao was also flavored with ear flower, vanilla, honey, allspice, and chiles (Presilla, 2001, p. 13, 14). Frothy chocolate was favored by the Maya, and it would later also be favored by the Aztecs and the Spaniards.
Unlike the Maya, the Aztecs limited cacao consumption to the elites and the warrior class. Aztec cacao drinks were available (to the members of these social classes) in the market, and the makers of these drinks were considered true artisans, as:
“She who sells remade cacao for drinking first grinds it in this fashion: At the first [grinding] she breaks or crushes the beans; at the second they are slightly more ground; at the third and last they are very well ground, being mixed with boiled and rinsed corn kernels; and being thus ground and mixed, they add water [to the mixture] in any sort of vessel [vaso]. If they add little [water] they have beautiful cacao; if they add a lot, it will not produce froth.” (Saghagun, Historia General)
Frothy cacao was considered to be the very best of the Aztec cacao drinks, and all other cacao drinks were considered inferior (Presilla, 2001, p.19-20). Today, cacao is drunk throughout the day or as a nightcap, but the Aztec elites drank their cacao at the end of meals (Coe, 2013, Kindle location 1330). The Aztecs, much like the Maya, used locally available ingredients to flavor their cacao. These ingredients included honey, ear flower, vanilla, string flower, magnolia, piper sanctum ( pepper flower), heart flower, chiles, and allspice. According to Coe in The True History of Chocolate, Aztec cacao was made with roasted ground cacao beans and sopata seeds that were mixed with ground corn and spices (Coe, 2013, Kindle location 1314).
The Spanish assimilated their own flavors when they brought chocolate over from Mesoamerica, including: cinnamon, sugar, and black pepper (Coe, 2013, Kindle Location 1599). The Spanish also began mixing cacao with cow’s milk. In order to grind the beans, a heated metate was used, and the precious and sought after froth was obtained using a molinillo stirring stick (Coe, 2013, Kindle Location 1599-1614).
While the historical flavors of drinking chocolate remain, cacao has become a much sweeter drink in modern times, and flavorings have continuously expanded. With the current trend towards a diet low in refined sugars, I wonder if the Maya and Aztec way of drinking unsweetened cacao might make a comeback.
Coe, Sophie D.; Coe, Michael D. (2013-06-28). The True History of Chocolate. Thames & Hudson. Kindle Edition.
Presilla, Maricel. (2001). The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Ten Speed Press.
Image 1: Swiss Miss Cocoa Collection, from the Swiss Miss website
Image 2: Abuelita Cocoa, from the Abuelita website
Image 3: Maya cocoa frothing, from the course slides