All posts by aaas119x14

Can You Taste the Terroir? Sampling Single Origin Chocolates for a Sense of Place

The French term terroir can be described as “the web that connects and unifies raw materials, their growing conditions, production processes, and the moment of product appreciation” (Nesto, 131).  This sense of place that can be discerned in a final product is most often associated with wine, an industry in which there is much stricter regulation of geographic labeling of the origin of raw materials and a longer history of vineyard differentiation (Nesto, 134).  In the chocolate industry, single origin generally refers to chocolate made only from cacao grown in one region.  Chocolate produced from cacao from different regions varies in taste due to “the local soil and environment bringing out inherent genetic characteristics” and “the way in which particular styles of drying and fermentation have distinct effects on overall flavor and aroma” (Presilla, 126).

Nineteenth-century advertisement for chocolate that emphasizes the cacao’s Caracas, Venezuela origins, equating origins with quality. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/13177/13177-h/images/caracas.jpg

Since cacao began to be exported to Europe, cacao origins have varied in importance.  Cacao has always been sold to merchants based on its origins, whether the origin is defined as the plantation on which it was grown, the region in which it was produced, or the port from which it was shipped (Nesto, 134).  At different points in history, cacao from certain regions was prized due to its high quality, with cacao from particular parts of Mexico, Venezuela, or Colombia advertised and favored by consumers for periods during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (Presilla, 124; Leissle, 22).  The advertisement above shows how cacao origins (in this case, Caracas) were used to market chocolate to consumers as high quality.

World map highlighting cacao growing countries, including Trinidad, Venezuela, São Tomé and Príncipe, and Madagascar. All of the highlighted countries fall within 20 degrees of the equator. http://www.kemeh.com/images/worldmap-new.jpg

Over the last century or so, cacao origins became more obscured, as production shifted to other parts of the globe, with the vast majority of cacao now grown in West Africa, and with chocolatiers producing chocolate by blending cacao of various origins (Nesto, 134).  The map above illustrates how cacao production has shifted far beyond its Central and South American origins.  Both the artisanal chocolate makers and the corporate giants, such as Hershey and Cadbury, blend cacao beans from different places and different strains in an attempt to produce a more balanced, consistent chocolate and to distance the final product from its controversial origins in West Africa (Presilla, 126; Leissle, 23).

Single origin chocolate did not start making a comeback until the 1980s, with the resurgence of artisans and the rising interest in food origins (Leissle, 23).  While single origin chocolate still represents a tiny fraction of the world chocolate industry, there are myriad artisanal chocolatiers today producing bars highlighting the distinct, unexpected regional flavors of cacao — its terroir (Leissle, 23; Williams and Eber, 167).

Four single origin Francois Pralus bars, purchased at Cardullo's.  Photo is my own.
Four single origin Francois Pralus bars, purchased at Cardullo’s. Photo is my own.

In order to further explore terroir and to see if differences in place truly translated into recognizable differences in taste, I decided to host a single origin chocolate tasting for my friends.  I chose four single origin bars from the French chocolatier Francois Pralus: Trinidad, Venezuela, São Tomé and Príncipe, and Madagascar, as pictured above.  The choice of chocolatier was influenced by my wish to choose a variety of bars from different regions of the world made by the same chocolatier and with the same ingredients and percentage of cacao (75% for the Pralus bars), in order to minimize flavor discrepancies from factors other than region.  Of course, one confounding factor that I found impossible to avoid was bean type, since different varieties of cacao are much more commonly grown in certain regions.  The Trinidad and Venezuela bars were both made with Trinitario cacao, while the São Tomé and Príncipe bar derived from Forastero beans and the Madagascar bar contained Criollo cacao.  As a point of comparison for the single origin bars and to practice tasting chocolate, I also provided my friends with Dove milk and dark chocolate, which are blended bars at a much lower price point.  The entire selection of chocolates that we tasted is pictured below.

Four single origin Pralus bars with Dove milk and dark chocolate bars. Photo is my own.
Four single origin Pralus bars with Dove milk and dark chocolate bars. Photo is my own.

For the single origin bars, we tasted them as a group, moving from west to east through the different origins.  All of the Pralus bars had a hard snap and dark brown color, but some of them differed quite a bit in other ways.  The Trinidad bar had a smooth, matte exterior and smelled bitter and smoky with some citrus and coffee notes.  The taste of the Trinidad bar was similar: bitter, astringent, and charred with only a hint of citrus.  While the bar was praised for its smooth texture, and slow, clean melt, almost all of my friends disliked the burnt aftertaste and astringent finish.  The Venezuela bar (also made from Trinitario cacao) had a very faint citrus scent, as well as a more subdued taste, with an arc from bitter to sweet with notes of citrus and earthiness.  The Venezuela bar had a matte exterior and melted more quickly, with a creamier and sweeter finish.

While the genetics of cacao are actually quite complicated, varieties have historically been classed as Criollo, Forastero, or Trinitario (with Trinitarios representing a cross between the other two). http://bloguldeciocolata.files.wordpress.com/2012/05/types_of_cocoa.png

After the Trinidad and Venezuela bars, we switched to African island origins and different cacao varieties.  The São Tomé and Príncipe bar (Forastero cacao) was much shinier and had a mild smell, with hints of bitterness, earthiness, and citrus.  Its taste arc went from sweet and citrusy to bitter, salty, and earthy.  The Madagascar bar (Criollo cacao) had a very light scent, with mild fruity and bitter notes.  However, the taste of the Madagascar bar was strong and varied, with creamy, buttery, earthy, smoky, fruity and citrusy elements.  The Madagascar bar, with its sweeter, fruitier notes and comparative lack of bitterness, was the overall favorite of the four Pralus bars we tasted.  A quote by Chloé Doutre-Roussel in Raising the Bar: The Future of Fine Chocolate accurately encompasses the chocolate tasting: “You have to give the flavor notes of chocolate many tastes and chances.  It doesn’t mean you’ll actually like the chocolates but you may and you certainly will appreciate them” (Williams and Eber, 144).  While my friends may not have particularly enjoyed many of the Pralus bars, they could appreciate the complexity and diversity of flavors.

Pralus Madagascar Plantation Video

Francois Pralus at his cacao plantation in Madagascar. http://www.chocolats-pralus.com/sites/default/files/imagecache/img_droite/plantation8_0.jpg

The single origin bars we tried at my chocolate tasting were all produced by Francois Pralus, a French chocolatier who sources beans from many different countries in order to produce 15 single origin bars, as well as some blended bars (http://www.chocolats-pralus.com/en).  Pralus also owns and operates his own plantation in Madagascar, as seen in the video and photograph above, so the Madagascar bar is even single plantation chocolate (http://www.chocolats-pralus.com/en).  Both on his website and on the packaging, Pralus emphasizes the regional differences and unique flavors of the cacao from each origin, even specifically speaking of terroir and comparing cacao vintages to great wines (http://www.chocolats-pralus.com/en).  One of things that sets Pralus apart from many other single origin chocolate producers is his willingness to create single origin bars with cacao from African countries, including Ghana (bar shown below) and São Tomé and Príncipe (pictured earlier) in West Africa, instead of just focusing on more traditionally prized chocolate regions in the Americas (Leissle, 23).

Pralus single origin Ghana bar. Few chocolatiers create single origin bars highlighting West African chocolate, even though the vast majority of cacao is grown in the region. http://www.chocolats-pralus.com/sites/default/files/gahna-copie.png

While some chocolatiers such as Francois Pralus believe in the importance of terroir and are committed to producing at least some single origin bars, single origin chocolate is not without its problems and detractors.  The first complaint about single origin chocolate is that there are no official or industry definitions of many terms associated with such chocolate and “origin” can refer to areas as a large as an entire country (Nesto, 134).  The lack of agreement over what constitutes single origin chocolate means there can be major discrepancies between what chocolatiers consider to be a region and that references to origins are sometimes more of a marketing tool than a signifier of quality or flavor profile (Williams and Eber, 173).  Even with the Pralus single origin bars, some are produced with cacao from a single plantation, while others use cacao from a certain part of the country, a cacao cooperative, or from the country as a whole.  Another contentious aspect of the lack of regulation is that single origin chocolate is often associated with higher quality beans and ingredients, especially given its generally higher price point, but there are no rules regarding the quality or type of beans used in single origin bars (Williams and Eber, 168-71).

The Pralus Djakarta bar, which blends Indonesian and Ghanaian cacao. http://www.chocolats-pralus.com/sites/default/files/djakarta-copie.png

The second major issue with single origin chocolate is taste.  While some praise the unique flavors associated with cacao from specific regions and the variation between harvests, others argue that blending can produce a more consistent, better tasting chocolate.  Throughout history, chocolatiers have blended cacao from different origins or varieties in order to enhance the flavor, creating a chocolate with “a total effect greater than the sum of its parts” (Presilla, 126).  Even Francois Pralus produces some blended bars, including the Djakarta and Caracas bars shown above and below, which incorporate some Ghanaian cacao to balance the flavor.  Both of these bars are somewhat problematic, since the packaging makes them look like single origin chocolates, but the fine print on the back and the information on the Pralus website do acknowledge that they are blended bars.  Blending also allows chocolate makers to concoct flavors that vary less from year to year, providing a more uniform product for consumers, who often desire the same experience every time, and chefs, who need consistency for their confections (Williams and Eber, 177-8).  Another reason some chocolate companies practice blending is also cost: by using cheaper cacao as the base and only using small quantities of high-quality beans for flavor, producers can create a chocolate that tastes better for less money (Presilla, 126; Williams and Eber, 180-3).

The Pralus Caracas bar, which incorporates Venezuelan and Ghanaian cacao. http://www.chocolats-pralus.com/sites/default/files/caracas-copie.png

At the end of the day, chocolate consumption is primarily about taste: consumers seek an enjoyable experience and chocolate that tastes good.  Personally, I love trying different types of chocolate and experiencing unique flavors, and I appreciate the vast range of tastes that can be experienced through single origin chocolates.  I also think it is important not to completely sever areas of cacao production from the finished product: single origin bars and the associated terroir are one way to retain an essence of the place of production in the consumption experience, and by emphasizing the origins over the country of manufacture, focus is partially shifted back to the oft-forgotten plantations and growers.   However, I also only truly enjoy and would spend money on tastes that I find pleasant.  While my friends and I had fun tasting single origin chocolate bars and distinguishing the different characteristics connected with cacao from particular regions, none of us particularly enjoyed the Pralus bars and I would not buy them again given the high price point ($10 and up for a 3.5 ounce bar).  For me, an ideal chocolate balances concerns for price, taste, and terroir.

Works Cited

Leissle, Kristy. “Invisible West Africa: The Politics of Single Origin Chocolate.”  Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture. 13:3 (2013): 22-31.

Nesto, Bill. “Discovering Terroir in the World of Chocolate.” Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture 10:1 (2010): 131–135.

Pralus, Francois.  “Francois Pralus: Maitre Chocolatier.” Accessed May 4, 2014. http://www.chocolats-pralus.com/en

Presilla, Maricel. The New Taste of Chocolate, Revised: A Cultural & Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 2009.

Williams, Pam and Eber, Jim. Raising the Bar: The Future of Fine Chocolate. Vancouver: Wilmor Publishing Corporation, 2012.

Chocolate Divas: Gender Stereotypes in Chocolate Advertising

As Emma Robertson writes in Chocolate, Women and Empire: A Social and Cultural History,  “the meanings of production and consumption have been created, controlled and contested, in gendered and raced ways, by those involved in the chocolate industry.” (4)  Chocolate advertisements both historically and in recent years have adhered to this, often portraying women and people of color in stereotypical ways.  Unfortunately, Godiva’s 2004 advertisement campaign based on the motif of a modern-day diva failed to escape this negative history of chocolate marketing.  The $5 million Godiva ad campaign aimed to increase sales among a younger twenty-five to thirty-year-old demographic, broadening Godiva’s target market from their traditional customer base primarily composed of women thirty-five and older (Cho).

Part of Godiva’s 2004 diva ad campaign. http://files.coloribus.com/files/adsarchive/part_647/6476105/file/chocolate-everywoman-small-84618.jpg

This ad is part of the Godiva diva campaign and features Frankie Rayder, a Victoria’s Secret model, as part of its attempt to appeal to younger consumers (Cho).  Visually, the ad resembles the content of high fashion magazines—such as Elle and Vogue, where it appeared—with the richly patterned dark wallpaper, ornate vase, and chandeliers in the background.  The luxurious trimmings of the setting reinforce Godiva as a luxury chocolate brand, making Godiva more appealing to upscale buyers.  The model appears to be the same age as the target demographic—a woman in her late twenties—and is styled in a fancy yet seductive way.  Her clothing seems well-made and expensive, but it is unclear whether she is wearing a dress or fancy nightgown.  Similarly, the model’s hair is styled in loose curls that are slightly unkempt, adding to the sultry look.  Her pose is also feminine and alluring, but not particularly strong, as expected of a diva.

While the pose and styling are not particularly fitting of a diva — often associated with strong, independent modern women — the major issue with this Godiva ad is with its text, which reads “Every woman is one part diva much to the dismay of every man.”  The second half of the text equates diva with bossiness, stubbornness, or other of its negative connotations, as being a diva is apparently something that men don’t like.  Also, the end of the text suggests that women are somehow failing to gain the approval of men; not only does this go against the positive idea of a diva as a independent modern woman, but it also makes the ad heteronormative, excluding a portion of Godiva’s new target market who may not identify as heterosexual.  Referencing men in this ad in such a way is especially unusual since the campaign aimed to increase sales among younger women buying chocolate for themselves, not receiving Godiva chocolates as a gift (Cho), so who cares what men think in this case?

Parody ad of Godiva. Original image: http://www.esquire.com/cm/esquire/images/KN/Esq-110513-Woman-Hitting-Office-Man.jpg
Parody of Godiva’s 2004 diva ad. Original image: http://www.esquire.com/cm/esquire/images/KN/Esq-110513-Woman-Hitting-Office-Man.jpg

My partner and I created a parody of Godiva’s 2004 diva ad that is perhaps more fitting of the original Godiva ad text.  In this ad, a woman with a box of Godiva chocolates is acting crazily towards a man, driven mad by the desire for chocolate, while the man looks frightened.  Also, since the second part of the Godiva ad text seems to suggest old-fashioned gender roles with women expected to be subordinate to men and seeking their approval, this image is black and white and the styling is reminiscent of the 1940s.  While this image is purposely exaggerated, it does visually connect the Godiva ad to a longer history of chocolate advertising, in which women are depicted as narcissistic irrational consumers, acting crazy as a result of their desire for chocolate (Robertson, 33).

Our response to Godiva's ad. Original image: http://www.exoticexcess.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/08/estee-lauder-chocolate-decadence-autumn-2008-look.jpg
Updated version of Godiva’s 2004 diva ad. Original image: http://www.exoticexcess.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/08/estee-lauder-chocolate-decadence-autumn-2008-look.jpg

In this response to the original Godiva ad, we chose a woman who represented a more positive modern image of a diva.   The straight-to-camera pose and the sleek, professional hairstyle present a stronger, more confident woman.  However, we wanted to avoid the idea that a woman must be overly businesslike or masculine to be strong or taken seriously, so we chose a woman that balanced professional styling with a fashionable outfit and feminine makeup.  The resulting image presents a confident young woman representing the contemporary diva of Godiva’s new target market, while still retaining the luxurious, upscale feel associated with a premium chocolate brand.  For the text, we chose to keep as much of the original as possible, eliminating the second half of the text that appeared with the original Godiva ad.  Now, the text emphasizes positive connotations of the word diva and unites all women, rather than excluding non-heterosexual women.

Part of Godiva’s 2004 diva ad campaign. http://files.coloribus.com/files/adsarchive/part_648/6481905/file/chocolate-dark-chocolate-small-51123.jpg
Part of Godiva’s 2004 diva ad campaign. http://files.coloribus.com/files/adsarchive/part_647/6476055/file/chocolate-white-chocolate-small-11241.jpg
Part of Godiva’s 2004 diva ad campaign. https://chocolateclass.files.wordpress.com/2014/04/4ff20-rohinitiwari.jpg

The diva motif has cropped up in a number of chocolate advertisements in recent years, but unfortunately, only the more negative connotations of being a diva have been emphasized.  The rest of Godiva’s ads from their 2004 campaign have similar issues in terms of the poses, styling, and text, portraying female consumers as fashion or appearance obsessed and overly concern with social norms, as well as continuing to sexualize them.  Cadbury also came out with a diva-themed ad in 2011, in which they referred to the supermodel Naomi Campbell by name, and equated being a diva with being hotheaded and pampered.

Cadbury 2011 diva ad. http://i.huffpost.com/gen/284072/NAOMI-CAMPBELL-CADBURY.jpg

While these ads do not live up to their potential, the diva motif can definitely be reclaimed and used in an appropriate way in chocolate advertising by focusing on the positive aspects of a diva: confidence, sassiness, strength, and independence.

 

Works Cited

Cho, Cynthia H. “Godiva Appeals to the Diva Within: Chocolatier’s Upcoming Ads Target Younger Consumers; Dinner with Sarah Jessica?” The Wall Street Journal 13 September 2004. http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB109502924679815780

Robertson, Emma. Chocolate, Women and Empire: A Social and Cultural History. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2009.

Hershey’s Early History: The Making of an American Classic

Today, the Hershey Company is synonymous with American milk chocolate and is the largest chocolate manufacturer in North America, with its headquarters in Hershey, Pennsylvania.  Hershey’s is one of the Big Five chocolate companies — along with Mars, Cadbury, Ferrero, and Nestle — that dominate the chocolate market worldwide.  Although Hershey’s produces a wide variety of products, including both chocolate and other candies, Hershey’s is best known for its plain milk chocolate, in bar or kiss form, as shown below.

Hershey’s milk chocolate bar and Hershey’s kiss, two of the most iconic Hershey’s products.
Hershey’s Chocolate World, in Hershey, PA.

Hershey’s also operates Hershey’s Chocolate World (pictured above), where tourists can buy Hershey’s products and learn about the history and production of Hershey’s chocolate.  I visited Hershey’s Chocolate World in Hershey, PA, countless times as a child.  At least once a year, my mother and I would drive from our home in Connecticut to Pittsburgh, PA, where all of her family lived.  Hershey, PA is almost exactly halfway between Connecticut and Pittsburgh and served as a delicious stopping point.  While I have never particularly liked Hershey’s plain milk chocolate due to its slightly tangy taste, I enjoyed taking the tour every time as a child, marveling at the vast quantities of chocolate produce daily and orderly mechanization of the entire process, as chocolate went from cacao beans to an individually-wrapped Hershey’s kiss in its iconic silver foil.

How did Hershey’s get its start and go on to become the major chocolate manufacturer it is today?  The story starts with Milton S. Hershey and Hershey, Pennsylvania in the early twentieth century, both pictured during this time period in the photographs below.

Milton S. Hershey, the founder of the Hershey Company.
Hershey, PA in the early 20th century.

Although the factory in what would become Hershey was not Milton Hershey’s first foray into the chocolate or confection business, it is what transformed Hershey’s in its early days.  In the early 1900s, Hershey and his team conducted numerous experiments to develop a milk chocolate that could be mass-produced and easily used in the new factory (D’Antonio, 106-7).  After much trial and error, Hershey first decided to switch the breed of cows that supplied his milk, replacing his Jersey cows with Holsteins, pictured below (D’Antonio, 106).  Holstein cows naturally produce milk with a lower fat content, making it easier to create skim milk that is less prone to spoiling (D’Antonio, 106).

A Holstein cow grazing. The milk for Hershey’s milk chocolate came from the myriad dairy farms in central Pennsylvania.

One of Hershey’s employees then developed a process for mixing and heating the milk and sugar together into sweetened condensed milk (D’Antonio, 107).  Other ingredients, including cocoa powder and cocoa butter, could be easily incorporated into the molten sweet milk; the resulting milk chocolate mixture could also be moved through the factory with less hassle, as it flowed smoothly (D’Antonio, 107-8).  The ability of Hershey to mass-produce milk chocolate in a factory setting propelled Hershey’s to early success.

Another important feature of Hershey’s in the early days was the creation of the town of Hershey.  Milton Hershey created what became known as Hershey, PA as a utopian-inspired town with affordable, modern homes and nice amenities for the factory workers, including Hershey Park, shown below (D’Antonio, 116-7).

The merry-go-round at Hershey Park in the early 1900s. Hersheypark, as it is called today, still exists as an amusement park.

All of these developments over the course of Hershey’s early history helped boost Hershey’s sales and transform it into the giant chocolate manufacturer it is today (D’Antonio, 119; Brenner, 182).  The use of fresh milk, rather than the powdered milk method developed by Swiss chocolatiers Daniel Peter and Henri Nestle, gave Hershey’s an advantage over its European competitors.  First, the smooth-flowing Hershey’s milk chocolate could be more easily transported throughout the factory, allowing Hershey’s to make chocolate faster and cheaper (D’Antonio, 108).  The milk condensation process also gave Hershey’s milk chocolate a unique sweet and tangy flavor, due to the fermentation of the milk fat that occurs during production (D’Antonio, 108).  While this taste difference meant that those accustomed to Swiss milk chocolate did not necessarily enjoy Hershey’s chocolate, the unique flavor still gave Hershey’s an early advantage in the American market, as it was the first milk chocolate to which many Americans had access, creating a large, loyal consumer base that then equated Hershey’s with how milk chocolate was supposed to taste (D’Antonio, 108).

Milton Hershey’s factory approach also allowed Hershey’s to produce chocolate at a very low cost, thanks to the basic, repetitive tasks performed by the factory workers and the efficient, modern machinery (D’Antonio, 120).  Hershey’s could easily transport raw cacao beans to the factory and finished chocolate products to the stores as materials could be directly transferred to and from rail cars at the factory (D’Antonio, 108, 118).  The creation of the factory town of Hershey also contributed to Hershey’s profits and power, as money from outside the community from chocolate sales was given to the workers in the form of paychecks, which were then spent primarily in town, cycling the money straight back to Hershey (D’Antonio, 120-1).

Hershey’s main factory in Hershey, PA several years after completion.

All of these innovations in Hershey’s early history helped propel Hershey’s to success.  In the first year of manufacturing in Hershey, PA (factory shown above), Hershey’s saw sales over $1 million, which then grew to $5 million by 1912 (D’Antonio, 120-2).  In the early 1940s, Hershey struck a lucrative deal with Mars, providing them with chocolate coating for their confections (Brenner, 69).  Even though this relationship ended in the mid-1960s, hampering Hershey’s sale for a few years, Hershey rebounded and focused more on their own products (Brenner, 181-2).  Today, Hershey’s boasts annual sales around $7 billion, with over $810 million in profit, showing the successful trajectory stemming from the early development of the Hershey Company  (The Wall Street Journal).

 

Works Cited

Brenner, Joel Glenn.  The Emperors of Chocolate: Inside the Secret World of Hershey and
Mars.  New York: Broadway Books, 2000.

D’Antonio, Michael D.  Hershey: Milton S. Hershey’s Extraordinary Life of
Wealth, Empire, and Utopian Dreams.  New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006.

Prior, Anna.  “Hershey Profit Rises on Strong Holiday Sales: Candy Maker Posts Strong North America Sales.”  The Wall Street Journal, January 30, 2014.  Accessed March 12, 2014.  http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702303519404579352420414790590

Image 1: http://groups.etown.edu/sife/files/2012/11/HERSHEYS-Corp-Logo.jpg

Image 2: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/1/19/Chocolate_World.JPG

Image 3:  http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/a6/Milton_S._Hershey_c1905.jpg

Image 4: http://www.mhs-pa.org/assets/images/page-346-290×202/image-1476.jpg

Image 5:  http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/7/7d/Holstein_heifer.jpg/250px-Holstein_heifer.jpg

Image 6: http://www.hersheypa.com/about_hershey/our_proud_history/images/featureHersheypark.jpg

Image 7: http://explorepahistory.com/kora/files/1/2/1-2-1274-25-ExplorePAHistory-a0k9a2-a_349.jpg

Video 1: http://www.hersheys.com/ads-and-videos/how-we-make-chocolate.aspx, Family of Brands

Video 2: https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=BLUEptVYHN4

Video 3: http://www.hersheys.com/ads-and-videos/how-we-make-chocolate.aspx, Mixing the Ingredients

From Bitter to Sweet: Historical Mesoamerican Chocolate Recipes

While chocolate has only been familiar to Europeans for the past five hundred years, it has enjoyed a much longer history of consumption among Mesoamericans.  Both the Maya and Aztec were major consumers of chocolate and coveted cacao beans, which were transformed into chocolate drinks and could also be used as money.  Traditional Mesoamerican chocolate recipes are quite different from modern hot chocolate recipes, which rely on the integration of ingredients from around the world.

Map of Mesoamerica

Cacao is native to the Americas and was cultivated and consumed throughout Mesoamerica prior to European contact, and chocolate was central to both Mayan and Aztec culture.  However, cacao was not easily cultivatable in all areas of Mayan settlement (shown in green on the map above): little cacao could be grown in the Yucatan, but more could grow in other regions of Mesoamerica, so control of cacao-growing regions was essential (Coe, 56-8).  The Aztec likewise fought for control of cacao-growing lands and transported cacao beans over long distances to their capital Tenochtitlan, as cacao could not be grown readily in areas of Aztec inhabitation (highlighted in yellow on the map above) (Coe, 69, 79-83; Presilla, 17).  The Aztecs’ importation of cacao from regions inhabited by the descendants of the Maya led to the formation of a powerful merchant class, the pochteca (seen below), who carried the cacao on their backs across Mesoamerica (Presilla, 17; Coe, 73-4).

Pochteca (Aztec merchants)

Perhaps the Aztecs’ increased difficulty in procuring cacao and the class-stratified society based around cacao transport led to the differences in chocolate consumption between the Aztecs and Maya.  Cacao and chocolate were important symbolic displays of wealth among the Aztecs, as not everyone had access to chocolate, unlike in Maya society (Presilla, 18-9, 22).  Aztec emperors stored large quantities of cacao, which served as their source of wealth, allowing leaders to buy things as well as serve chocolate to influence others (Presilla, 18-9; Coe, 81-3).  While chocolate was more of a status symbol among the Aztecs, it still held an important place in Maya society: chocolate drinks were ritualistically and socially significant, featuring in feasts, baptisms, festivals, and betrothal and marriage ceremonies (Coe, 59-61).

Cacao pods, pulp, and seeds

This photograph shows cacao pods, which grow from the trunk of cacao trees (Theobroma cacao).  Inside are the cacao beans (seeds), contained in a white, fleshy pulp, which can also be consumed fresh or fermented.  The Maya and Aztec both prepared chocolate drinks from cacao beans in similar ways.  Cacao beans were fermented, dried, roasted, and winnowed (removing the outer layer of the seed) before being ground into a thick paste using a metate, a Mesoamerican ground stone tool used mainly by women for processing grain and seeds, such as maize and cacao (Coe, 22-4).To this paste, the Maya and Aztec added water and a variety of seasonings native to Mesoamerica, including chiles, ear flower, achiote (annatto), vanilla, allspice, and maize; in general, chocolate was unsweetened and bitter, although honey, maguey sap, or agave were sometimes added (Coe, 49, 62; Presilla, 13-4).  The one major difference between Mayan and Aztec chocolate beverages is that the Maya generally served theirs hot, while the Aztecs’ were served cold (Presilla, 19-20).  In addition to adding similar ingredients to their chocolate, both the Maya and Aztec also prized frothy chocolate drinks.

Traditional frothing method

This image, from the sixteenth century Códice Tudelo, shows an Aztec women frothing chocolate.  Before the Spanish addition of the molinillo, or stirring stick, Mesoamericans frothed chocolate by pouring it back and forth between two vessels (Presilla, 19-20).

The chocolate drinks of the Maya, while also frothy and hot, are radically different from the hot chocolate most of us consume today.  We generally create hot chocolate that is very sweet and dessert-like, whereas Mesoamerican chocolate beverages were often bitter or savory, and could be consumed as meals.  Even the sweeteners and spices used are very different.  Before European contact, the Maya and Aztecs could only flavor their chocolate with seasonings that grew in Mesoamerica or could be gained from trade with other groups in the Americas.

Hot chocolate ingredient origins
Hot chocolate ingredient origins

The European transformation of hot chocolate reflects global influences and the new variety of flavors available only through worldwide trade.  Consider common modern hot chocolate ingredients — cacao, sugar, milk, vanilla, and cinnamon — and their origins in the Amazon, New Guinea, Mesopotamia, Mesoamerica, and Sri Lanka, respectively (Mintz, 19; Coe, 25).  While the Maya and Aztec were certainly imaginative in their chocolate flavorings, their recipes also illustrate the culinary limitations before global ingredient sourcing was possible.

 

Works Cited

Coe, Sophie D. and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. 3rd edition. London: Thames & Hudson, 2013[1996].

Mintz, Sidney. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Penguin Books, 1986[1985].

Presilla, Maricel. The New Taste of Chocolate, Revised: A Cultural & Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 2009.

Map 1:  http://www.museumofthecity.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/mesoamerican_civilizations1.jpg

Map 2: created from http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/4/44/World_map_blank_shorelines_semiwikimapia.svg/720px-World_map_blank_shorelines_semiwikimapia.svg.png

Image 1:  http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/63/Pochtecas_con_su_carga.JPG

Image 2:  http://www.foodsresourcebank.org/sites/default/files/Colombia%20Choco%208005%20(MCC)%20From%20coca%20to%20cacao2%20copy.jpg

Image 3: http://blogs.uoregon.edu/mesoinstitute/files/2013/11/Chocolate-7-op1y2v.jpeg

Image 4: http://www.deandeluca.com/ProductImg/500/109104/cooks-tools-main/cooks-tools/utensils/mexican-molinillo.jpg

Video 1: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G9LnwzLJYCQ