Chocolate, Straight from the Source
I used to think chocolate was a rich and sweet treat best enjoyed from fancy packages with European names. While by no means an expert, I thought I knew a thing or two about this dark and delicious food so many of us adore. However, after traveling directly to the source in Mexico and Central America, I now realize chocolate and cocoa is a much more interesting and diverse product, with a fascinating history.
The ancient Maya civilization that thrived in Mesoamerica more than a thousand years ago built impressive cities with unique architectural elements, developed advanced mathematics, and studied astronomy. Here, long before Europeans had ever seen or tasted chocolate, the Mayans harvested and consumed native cacao and exulted its taste and powerful properties. Even though they were surrounded by gold and silver, these “precious” metals were not considered important. Cocoa, on the other hand, was one of the prized items offered to the Gods and consumed during religious ceremonies and other special events. The neighboring Aztec civilization in the North learned of cocoa beans from the Mayans, and even used them as a form of currency.
During a guided hike through Central Guatemala, our guide ran off the trail to pick a large green fruit from a nearby tree. He brought this strange, rugby-ball shaped object back to us, telling us this was the fruit from a cacao tree. Next, he split open the pod with his hands, revealing the white and gooey pulp surrounding a large number of beans. We each reached in to grab one of the raw cacao beans, sucking the semi-sweet pulp surrounding it and biting gently on the seeds. The taste was very bitter and only barely recognizable as chocolate.
Processing into Chocolate
Cocoa beans require many steps of processing in order to be turned into chocolate. After harvesting the pods, the beans are removed, fermented for a few days, and dried by the farmers. These dried beans are then sent to chocolate factories, which roast and press the seeds to extract cocoa powder and cocoa butter. To produce chocolate, the powder, butter, and sugar are mixed together and refined. Additional ingredients such as vanilla or whole milk can also be added.
Traditional Local Chocolate
In Mexico and Central America it’s still easy to find a large number of different chocolate and cacao products, many of which are similar to the foods first enjoyed here thousands of years ago. Modern Mayan descendants often sell homemade chocolate produced by hand and without special machinery. This chocolate is slightly gritty and much less sweet than any mass-produced chocolate commonly available. Specialty chocolate shops can be found in towns and markets, offering wholesale dried cacao beans, powder, chocolate discs, and mole pastes. These are purchased and used in traditional preparations of drinking chocolate, sauces or fillings for meats and tamales, and many other dishes. Here, in the birthplace of chocolate, it is considered an important basic ingredient – not just a decadent snack or dessert.
How do you like to enjoy chocolate?
Calorie Count co-founder Erik Fantasia and his girlfriend, Heather Curtis, are currently traveling through Central America as part of a trip around the world. You can follow their adventures online at www.aroundthisworld.com