The Silver Chocolatière: a 1500-year collaboration between the Mayan, Aztec, Spanish, and French people

A silver chocolate pot created in 1774 in Paris, France by Joseph-Théodore Van Cauwenbergh

The Silver chocolatière pictured above, which features a hinged lid with hole in which a wooden stirrer, a moussoir, could be inserted, was designed to create and hold a frothy chocolate beverage. With its long wooden handle, the pot allowed not only for ease of pouring, but also protected the pourer from the heat of the chocolate that would likely permeate the metal surrounding it. Silver chocolate pots designed in this fashion are widely credited to have been invented by the French in the 17th century; however, such accreditation provides only a small portion of the story behind these devices (Coe and Coe 158-160). The so-called French chocolatière of baroque Europe was actually developed over 1500 years, constructed not only with the ideas and traditions of the French, but also with those of the Mayan, Aztec, and Spanish people.

The Mayan civilization, which thrived in its’ Classic Period on the Yucatan Peninsula of present-day Mexico from around 250CE-900CE, both cultivated cacao and consumed it – primarily as a hot beverage. Contrastingly, in the Aztec society that chronologically followed the Mayan, cacao was consumed as a cold beverage (Coe and Coe 114-115). When the Spanish conquistadors reached the shores of Mesoamerica in the 16th century, their main interactions were with the Aztec civilization; however, in 1519 Hernan Cortes led a band of conquistadors into the Yucatan Peninsula, where they encountered remaining bands of Mayan people (“The Spanish Conquest”). It is likely that these Yucatec Mayans passed their tradition of consuming chocolate hot onto the Spanish, who then brought that tradition back to Europe where it spread to France, necessitating chocolate vessels, like the silver chocolatière, that could withstand heat (Coe and Coe 115).

While the Aztec tradition of consuming chocolate as a cold beverage was passed over by the conquistadors in favor of the Mayan practice of taking it hot, another Aztec chocolate tradition – the desire for chocolate drinks that had foam on the top – was something the Spanish took from the New World back to Europe. In order to create foam, or froth, on the chocolate they were preparing for their masters, Aztec servants would pour chocolate from a raised vessel into a receptacle placed on the floor, and repeat this several times – a process that is depicted in the picture below (Coe and Coe 86).

An Illustration from the 16th century Aztec Codex Tudela

If the chocolate was of good quality, according to Aztec standards, froth would develop on the top when it was poured from vessel to vessel, and this would signal a highly desirable drink. The Spanish accepted and adopted this standard, transmitting the desire for a frothy chocolate beverage back to Europe, while at the same time developing their own means with which to achieve the desired foam (Presilla 20).

The Spanish conquistadors developed themolinillo, pictured below, which allowed them to achieve the Aztec ideal of chocolate with foam, in a more compact and less labor-intensive fashion.

Molinillos

The molinillo is a wooden device comprised of a long stick with rings that rattle when the stick is turned back and forth in the hands. When the rings are inserted into a chocolate beverage and the molinillo is rotated, foam will form on top of the chocolate (Presilla 26). It was the molinillo, a Spanish invention, that formed the basis for the French moussoir, the wooden stirrer that would be inserted through the lids of silver chocolatières, in order to create a frothy chocolate beverage (Coe and Coe 115).

Thus, the French combined the Mayan tradition of serving chocolate hot, the Aztec desire for foam in chocolate beverages, and the Spanish method of producing that foam, into a silver chocolatière. The French were the first in Europe to add a long handle to the chocolate serving device, and were perhaps the first to produce such devices in silver; however, these were small alterations to the larger concept about the proper way to prepare and serve chocolate, a concept that had been building for more than a millennium, first in Mesoamerica and then in Europe (Coe and Coe 158). While traditions and ideas about chocolate and the correct way to serve it altered as they traveled from civilization to civilization, the Mayan, Aztec, and Spanish people all left a heavy mark on the way the wealthy baroque French took their chocolate

Works Cited

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. London: Thames and Hudson, 1996. Print.

Joseph-Théodore Van Cauwenbergh – Chocolate Pot. N.d. Walters Art Museum. Wikimedia Commons. Web. 19 Feb. 2015.

Molinillos. 2008. Wikimedia Commons. Web. 19 Feb. 2015.

Mujer Vertiendo Chocolate. N.d. Museo De América. Wikimedia Commons. Web. 19 Feb. 2015.

Presilla, Maricel. The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Berkeley: Ten Speed, 2001. Print.

“The Spanish Conquest and Its Aftermath – National Institute of Culture and History.” Institute of Archeology. The National Institute of Culture and History, n.d. Web. 19 Feb. 2015.

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