To Froth or Not to Froth?

From its early uses in Mesoamerica to its heightened popularity today, cacao – or chocolate, as it has come to be known – consumption has undergone several changes.  Once enjoyed solely by the elites of society as a beverage, chocolate is now a staple food consumed in many forms, from beverage to powder to candy bar, by the masses.  One aspect of the consumption of chocolate that has remained stable through the eras, however, is the frothy head that accompanies chocolate beverages.  Despite the changes in consumption and creation of these chocolate beverages from the Mayans and the Aztecs to the Spanish and the French and through to modern culture, the frothiness of these beverages has been an ever present aspect of their consumption.

Depiction of an Aztec woman undertaking the chocolate frothing process from the 16th century Codex Tudela.

The froth of these chocolate beverages was an important aspect of their consumption as early as the Classic Mayan era.  Though little is known of exactly why the foam was so important, it can be hypothesized that it is a case of the natural human preference for frothy, aerated beverages (Martin).  On the other hand, much has been discovered as to how the foam was created.  According to Sophie D. Coe and Michael D. Coe, depictions of the frothing process were found that date back to approximately 750AD.  After mixing the beverage, the creator poured it from shoulder height into another vessel repeatedly until a frothy head was formed (48).  The work involved in both creating the proper mixture for the drink and producing the proper foam may reveal why chocolate remained a beverage for the elite during this era.  Coe and Coe further explain that near the end of the Classic Mayan era, the Lacandóns, a Mayan subgroup, developed another method for producing the much desired froth.  Rather than creating it mechanically through pouring, they added additional ingredients to the chocolate mixture, such as suqir vine or aak (a grass), to produce the froth chemically with minor stirring (62-63). As depicted on the left, little change to the frothing process occurred as the Aztec era began; however, an additional reason for why the froth’s importance was discovered.  In his Historia general de las cosas de Nueva España, Bernardino de Sahagún explains that if the concoctors “add a little [water,] they have beautiful cacao; if they add a lot it will not produce a froth” (qtd. in Presilla 20).  The ability for the mixture to form a frothy head helped the consumers to judge the quality of the beverage they were presented (Presilla 20).  If the beverage had a weak or non-existent froth, one knew it was poorly crafted and would not be especially enjoyable.  The arrival of the Spaniards from the Old World brought a drastic change to the frothing process.

Example of a French chocolate pot.

When the Spanish began developing their own chocolate beverage concoctions, they replaced the pouring method of frothing the drinks with a whisking process using molinillos.  A molinillo, or chocolate mill, is a wooden device with a wide, notched head, sometimes surrounded by wooden rings, that is spun between one’s palms (Presilla 26, 28).  When used in conjunction with tall cylindrical vases, the rapid movement of the device and any surrounding rings aerated the drink and produced the desired frothiness.  Through the shift from the Aztec era, the importance of the froth likely remained both a matter of preference and a measure of quality.  As chocolate began to make its way across Europe, the French adapted the Spanish technique and crafted a device suited to their culture, adding a level of elegance to the chocolate making and frothing process.  As illustrated in the example above to the right, the French crafted stylish these chocolatières from silver or other precious metals.  These vessels completely encapsulated the moussoir, as the French called the molinillo, except for the very tip of the handle that protruded through an otherwise covered hold in the center of the lid (Coe and Coe 157).  The moussoir could be left in the vessel for repeated stirring and re-frothing of the beverage during its consumption, giving the consumer the ability to control the level of froth produced.  The wooden handle along the side of the vessel allowed for easy pouring for consumption (Coe and Coe 157).  The ease of frothing through the European whisking methods allowed for the beverage to move through the ranks of society and become the mass consumed commodity it is today.

In modern society, although chocolate is consumed in many forms and is no longer a creation reserved for the upper class, it remains a popular beverage option.  While traditional recipes for the beverage are still used, especially in Central and South America where the recipes originated, much change has undergone the beverage now served en masse to the public.  More often than not, the drinks are crafted through the combination of a powdered mixture and hot water or milk, rather than through melted chocolate and water.  This new mixture does not produce froth as well as the traditional recipes.  To counteract this and to continue the frothing tradition, consumers now add ingredients, such as whipped cream or marshmallows, to their beverages as pictured below (Coe and Coe 48). The foamy head no longer serves as a measure of quality as it is not produced by the concoction itself but retains its preferential status.

A chocolate beverage that could be consumed today.

Several changes have undergone the chocolate creation and consumption processes through the eras since its introduction.  Once merely a drink prized by the elite, chocolate today is a commodity consumed in several forms by a myriad of individuals.  One aspect that has remained static through its transformation, however, is the presence of and preference for a frothy head on each drink consumed.  From the pouring and stirring methods of the Mayans and Aztecs to the whisking methods of the Spanish and French to the ingredient-addition methods of modern culture, the importance of the froth has held fast through the eras, likely as a result of the human preference for aerated, foamy beverages.

Works Cited

Coe, Sophie D. and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. 3rd ed. London: Thames & Hudson, 2013. Print.

Martin, Carla D. “Introduction to Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food.” Harvard Extension School. Cambridge, MA.  27 Jan. 2016. Lecture.

Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate Revised. New York: Ten Speed Press, 2009. Print

Image Sources

Hot chocolate (2). 11 Mar. 2010. Digital image. Wikimedia Commons, 2014. Web. 18, Feb. 2016.

Mujer vertiendo chocolate – Codex Tudela. Digital image. Wikimedia Commons, 2015. Web. 18 Feb. 2016.

Van Cauwenbergh, Joseph-Théodore. Chocolate Pot. 1774. Digital image. Wikimedia Commons, 2015. Web. 18 Feb. 2016.




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