A Taste of Chocolate: From The Food of the Gods to the Modern Day Sweet Tooth

The type of chocolate that we have become accustomed to consuming regularly in the United States today is quite different than the chocolate that was first enjoyed many centuries ago.  In an effort to understand how we appreciate and understand chocolate today, and how we might also love historic chocolate recipes if we were only exposed to them, I hosted a chocolate tasting party with a few family members and friends.  The theme of the tasting party was Chocolate, Then and Now.

I considered how chocolate was first regularly consumed and decided to begin the tasting party by recreating several traditional drinking chocolate recipes that represented different interpretations of how chocolate was first consumed by Mayan and Aztec traditions.  These traditional drinks were passed on to people around the world and “by the seventeenth century, Spaniards in both Mexico and Spain had put their own stamp on the heady Aztec and Maya beverages” (Presilla, 2009).  The first recipe I selected was for Champurrado, which is a kind of “gruel of nixtamalized (lime-treated) corn masa, that has been flavored with chocolate” (Presilla, 2009).  Champurrado is traditionally consumed in Mexico as part of celebrations, particularly during the period around Christmas time.  I followed Maricel Presilla’s recipe, which contained dried masa, water, whole milk, cinnamon sticks, star anise pods, orange rind, vanilla extract, salt, muscovado sugar, and last but not least, dark chocolate.  The second drinking chocolate recipe I selected, also a recreation by Maricel Presilla, was for “Age of Discovery Vanilla-Scented Hot Chocolate”.  This take on a traditional Spanish drinking chocolate attempts to recreate the vanilla and chile infused beverage by combining milk, achiote seeds, almonds, hazelnuts, vanilla beans, dried rosebuds, cinnamon sticks, aniseed, arbol chiles, salt, sugar, and dark chocolate.

Achiote.  Image source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ABixa_orellana_fruit_open.jpg
Achiote. Image source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ABixa_orellana_fruit_open.jpg

These traditional recipes required quite a bit of investigation to find the correct ingredients.  For example, annatto or achiote seeds are not the first item that comes to mind when I think of hot chocolate.  In fact, prior to making this recipe I had never heard of the achiote tree, which produces seeds that were used to flavor drinking chocolate.  It took four employees at a large Boston Whole Foods to work together to finally find achiote powder for me.  Once I acquired all of my ingredients for two traditional drinking chocolate recipes, I ventured to find several chocolate bars that represented chocolate movements of the present day.  I purchased an array of chocolate bars that represented bean to bar chocolate makers, and local New England chocolate makers who claim that their chocolate is healthier through sweetening their bars with honey.

Some of the ingredients required for the drinking chocolate recipes.
Some of the ingredients required for the drinking chocolate recipes.  Image source: personal photo.

I fed my friends a healthy and light dinner that consisting of beets and other sautéed vegetables mixed with cheese and yogurt over toast.  I hoped this meal would leave them hungry enough to consume large amounts of chocolate!  They were eager and excited to learn more about the history of chocolate through tasting the traditional drinking chocolate and patiently waited while I attempted to accurately portray these fascinating recipes.  To the amusement of my guests, I ran into a few mishaps along the way and caused quite a mess in the kitchen!  Luckily both recipes were successful despite the boiling over of one recipe, the substitution of soy milk for cow’s milk in the other, and the lack of a fine mesh strainer for the nutty “age of discovery” beverage.

Everyone was curious as I mixed together ingredients for the Champurrado.
Everyone was curious as I mixed together ingredients for the Champurrado.  Image source: personal photo.

Expecting a bitter and dark flavor, my guests took their first sips of the Champurrado.  Watching their faces light up in delight and surprise was wonderful!  All of my guests loved this traditional mexican beverage and finished the entire cup.  People commented on how they loved the spices, the understated sweetness, and flavors they are not used to experiencing when consuming chocolate.  Chocolate has a long history of bringing different cultural flavors to the attention of people in far away lands.  “The migration of the chocolate habit led to the cross-cultural transmission of tastes (an appetite for spices such as vanilla and pepper, the color red, and a foamy froth)” (Norton, 2014).  They noted that although the flavor was very different than that of the chocolate they grew up with, it was very much enjoyable and something that they would love to learn how to make and drink again.  One friend even stated that the drink rivaled the famous hot chocolate from Burdick’s in Harvard Square!

We then moved on to the Age of Discovery Vanilla-scented Spanish drinking chocolate (Presilla, 2009).  The reactions were not as positive to this drink, partially due to the fact that I was unable to properly strain the beverage and remove the small nut pieces.  One friend even tried to strain the drink through a tea strainer to see how different the experience would be without the nut pieces!  Despite this complaint my guests enjoyed this drink quite a bit, but ultimately everyone still preferred the Champurrado.  One friend described his experience, “I could see myself enjoying it if I knew what to expect, but it was definitely less sweet than what I am accustomed to.  I like the nutty flavor to it, even though its not sweet.  It’s like a thick, more sugary, nut flavored coffee.  I like it.”  When discussing these two drinks in comparison to traditional powdered hot chocolate found in the United states today, a friend commented that “I don’t think people would actually like Swiss Miss if they had it next to this”. 

An attempt to strain the nut pieces from the Spanish drinking chocolate
An attempt to strain the nut pieces from the Spanish drinking chocolate.  Image source: personal photo.

Overall, I was excited by the reactions of my friends and pleased that they did not immediately reject flavors that were new and foreign to them.  I enjoyed both beverages, but preferred the Champurrado.  I could picture this drink being consumed by the Mayans during a hard days work.  The addition of nutrient and calorie rich ingredients like almonds, hazelnuts and Masa turned this drink into something that I imagine could be more of a meal replacement and sustain you for hours.  “For the Maya, these gruels were a handy, quick way of ingesting the calories necessary for the day, without the expenditure of firewood and labor needed to convert nixtamalized maize into a solid breadstuff ” (Coe and Coe, 2013).  This beverage was so good that we all wondered how it was not popular in our culture today.

Chocolate bars representing several modern chocolate makers.
Chocolate bars representing several modern chocolate makers.  Image source: personal photo.

We then transitioned into the experience of modern chocolate bars.  I had selected a variety of chocolate bars that represented several different movements occurring in the bean to bar and New England chocolate making cultures.  The first bar was a peppermint, 87% cacao, honey sweetened, fair trade certified bar from Pure 7 chocolate, based in Carlisle, MA (https://www.pure7chocolate.com).  Everyone enjoyed the taste and the chewiness of this bar, noting that the sweetness from honey was much less intense than the traditional sugar sweetened chocolate bars.  Next we opened the direct trade and organic guajillo chile dark chocholate bar from Taza Chocolate, based in Somerville, MA (http://www.tazachocolate.com/).  The first comments were regarding the granular consistency and surprising texture of the bar, which some people did not like.  They did like the extreme spiciness, but one person commented that the flavor reminded him distinctly of soy sauce.  Next came the salted caramel 68% cacao bar from direct trade chocolate maker Not Your Sugar Mamas, based in Vineyard Haven, MA (http://notyoursugarmamas.com/).  My friends were not thrilled with this bar and commented that they did not taste salted caramel in the bar, and did not enjoy the overall experience.  Harsh critics!  Moving on with high hopes for the next bar, they tasted the vanilla rooibos 67% cacao virgin chocolate bar from the bean to bar chocolate maker Raaka, based in Brooklyn, NY (http://www.raakachocolate.com/).  My friends commented that they tasted notes of cherry, but after this hint of flavor it was hard to ignore that they felt like they were chewing on coffee grinds or dirt.  One friend tasted a hint of tea and thought the bar was good, noting that he would eat it again…if it was free!  With two bars left to taste, the excitement in my tasting crowd was dwindling.  The next bar was the organic Heady Topper bar, a honey sweetened bar of caramel, pretzels, and 46% cocoa from Liberty Chocolate,  (http://libertychocolates.com/).  Sadly, none of my friends liked this chocolate bar, noting that it tasted terrible and comparing it to a freezer burned fudge popsicle!  They geared up to make room and end the night with the African Red Tea and Tart Cherry chocolate bar, which boasts being a deep milk chocolate bar with 45% cacao.  This bar is made organic chocolate maker Vosges, based in Chicago, IL (http://www.vosgeschocolate.com/).  This bar received rave reviews from all of the tasters, who noted that it was perfectly balanced and the only bar from the evening that they planned to seek out to eat again and again.

These chocolate bars tend to be very expensive, and many of my friends did not enjoy the flavors enough to justify paying the premium for bars made by these wonderful and ethically minded companies.  Although my guests loved the stories behind the companies, they could not get past some of the unique and non-traditional flavors in many of these modern chocolate bars.  Reflecting on the lack of enjoyment of the modern chocolate bars that had low sugar and fat content, my science minded friend stated, “I think we love chocolate because we love foods that are a blend of sweetness and fat content”.  His comment was exactly in line with what those that have studied chocolates influence on the brain have found, “…we particularly crave foods that are both sweet and high in fat…Chocolate, by chance, appears to reflect an optimal combination of both sweetness and fat, giving it a uniquely attractive taste” (Benton, 2004).  In the end, my modern day friends felt like the Mayans had it right and that the flavors from the traditional drinking chocolate recipes were far more appealing than the modern day healthy take on chocolate bars.  I was surprised by the outcome, but excited to bring life back into the traditional consumption of chocolate.

Works Cited

Benton (2004).  The Biology and Psychology of Chocolate Craving.  CRC Press.  Retrieved from http://isites.harvard.edu/fs/docs/icb.topic1259263.files/April%2020%20and%2022/Benton%20The%20Biology%20and%20Psychology%20of%20Chocolate%20Craving.pdf

Coe ,S., & Coe, M. (2013). The True History of Chocolate. London: Thames & Hudson Ltd.

Presilla, M. (2009). The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with recipes. United States: Ten Speed Press.

Norton, Marcy (2006). Tasting Empire: Chocolate and the Internalization of Mesoamerican Aesthetics.  American Historical Review.  Downloaded from http://ahr.oxfordjournals.org/ by guest on January 17, 2014.


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