In 2014, a flickr user who goes by the username “Kake” posted a visual guide to the London restaurant scene (Flikr 2014) Among the many photos in his album of London storefronts and delicious-looking meals, he shared this photograph of a sign outside of the Paul A. Young Fine Chocolaterie in London, UK. The sign emphasizes, in large bold lettering, an exciting feature on the chocolaterie’s menu: Aztec Hot Chocolate. Below the Aztec Hot Chocolate text, and in a distinctly different color and font style, Paul A. Young details the rest of their offerings, including “Sea Salted Caramel Billionaire Shortbread,” “Sichuan Pepper and Slem,” and “Ginger Pavé and Pavé shards.” These offerings, written in yellow, are more typical of chocolate desserts and are united by their yellow text color. They are described in specific detail, while the Hot Chocolate’s main attention drawing descriptor is that it’s “Aztec.”
Before they were used to describe hot chocolate at a London Chocolaterie, the Aztecs were a Mesoamerican people who inhabited the region we now largely classify as Central Mexico between the 14th to 16th century (Smith, 12). Like the Maya, their Southern Mexican predecessors, the Aztecs cherished and cultivated cacao, creating numerous cacao-based food and drinks which soon inspired the Spanish and other nations to introduce cacao and chocolate to their diets. Eventually, cacao and chocolate became global products, commercialized through colonization and exploitative labor practices and making their way to countries like England and the U.S. Paul A Young’s “Aztec Chocolate” is one of many modern-day chocolate products which recognizes chocolate’s origins as a publicity technique, while creating a chocolate product that most likely fails to resemble what scholars actually believe the Aztec’s produced.
The Aztecs primarily consumed chocolate as a drink, but with flavorings and recipes which deviate from how hot chocolate is popularly consumed in the present day. In one of the earliest accounts of chocolate consumption in Aztec society, an associate of the conquistador Hernan Cortes described the Aztec chocolate drink making process. He explains that the cacao is ground into powder, mixed with water, and changed from “one basin to another, so that a foam is raised” (Anonymous Conqueror 1556). The anonymous author highlights the process of foaming chocolate drinks, utilized by both the Aztecs and Maya. The Aztecs would pour their chocolate drinks from one container to another to create a foamy texture that they believed to be intrinsic to the chocolate consumption experience. The anonymous author also specifies that the chocolate “is better in hot weather than in cool, being cold in its nature” (Anonymous Conqueror 1556). Unlike most modern day hot chocolate consumers, the Aztecs consumed their chocolate cold (Coe 83).
Aztec chocolate makers were also immersed in all aspects of the chocolate-making labor, from the cracking of the cacao bean to the mixing of chocolate drink. Much of what we currently know about Aztec chocolate practices comes from Fray Bernadino de Sahagún, a Spanish missionary who is considered to be the world’s first field ethnographer (Coe 66). One of Sahagún’s native informants described the chocolate making process conducted by a female seller. She crushed and separates the cacao beans, soaks them, aerates them, filters them, grinds them and, finally, stirs in water (Sahagún 1950-59). The seller not only created the final cocoa and water mixture, but also worked with the cacao at every stage of the process. This process differs from that of chocolate-makers and consumers today, who often do not know the process behind the cocoa or chocolate they use to produce their chocolate and chocolate drinks
The Aztec chocolate beverage existed in many variations with different spices and flavorings. Chili was a very popular addition to chocolate, and chocolate makers added it in powder form to chocolate drinks called “Chilcacahuatl” (Coe 86). They also added maize or corn to drinks, making them nutritional and savory (Coe 85). The most popular chocolate flavor among the Aztecs was “cymbaopetalum penduliflorum,” a flower that was both flavorful and potentially inebriating (Coe 88). Absent from these chocolate recipes, however, is sugar or milk, both ingredients which were central to future European and global chocolate recipes (Coe 131). Ultimately, global chocolate production lead to the 1847 British chocolate company J.S. Fry & Sons creating the first solid edible chocolate bar from cocoa butter, cocoa powder and sugar (History.com 2014).
Chocolate has gone through many transformations since its Aztec origins. Red Online offers some clarity as to the way in which Paul A Young interpreted Aztec-style hot chocolate. A published 2015 recipe includes sugar, cocoa powder, dark chocolate, and a variety of spices like chili, cinnamon, nutmeg, and cardamom and instructs. It instructs the reader to mix and heat the sugar, cocoa, and chocolate in a saucepan and then to add spices. While it adopts the Aztec name, the Paul A Young Aztec-style chocolate drink holds little resemblance to the often hearty and chilled beverage consumed by the Aztecs. The Aztec name serves moreso as its own ingredient, an exotic and exciting reminder of a historic civilization.
An Aztec woman generates foam by pouring chocolate from one vessel to another in the Codex Totula, “History of Chocolate.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 15 Mar. 2019, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_chocolate#/media/File:Mujer_vertiendo_chocolate_-_Codex_Tudela.jpg.
Anonymous Conqueror 1556: 306a, cited and translated by Coe, Sophie D., and Coe, Michael D. The True History of Chocolate. Thames and Hudson, 2007.
Coe, Sophie D., and Coe, Michael D. The True History of Chocolate. Thames and Hudson, 2007.
Kake. “Sign Outside Paul A Young, City, London, EC3.” Flickr, Yahoo!, 22 Mar. 2014, http://www.flickr.com/photos/kake_pugh/13324305415/in/photostream/.
Klein, Christopher. “The Sweet History of Chocolate.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 14 Feb. 2014, www.history.com/news/the-sweet-history-of-chocolate.
Smith, Michael Ernest. The Aztecs. 3rd ed., Wiley-Blackwell, 2012.
Sahuagan 1950-59, cited by Coe, Sophie D., and Coe, Michael D. The True History of Chocolate. Thames and Hudson, 2007.