by Rowan Jacobsen
Photos © Alyssa D'Adamo of the HCP
We’ve been thinking a lot about foam these past couple of days in Oaxaca. That, of course, puts us firmly in line with a practice that goes back millennia in Mesoamerica. Long before the Viennese began ladling whipped cream onto their “Kapuziner” coffees (1700s) or the Italians began using their new espresso machines to steam some milk (1900s), Mesoamerican cultures were paying a lot of attention to the foam that topped their chocolate drinks.
They went to great lengths to produce it. They would pour the chocolate from on high, one vessel to another, back and forth, raising a froth that both the Maya and Aztec singled out as the best part of the drink. They even designed vessels with special spouts designed not for pouring but for channeling breath into the drink to give it a foamy head. (Hat tip to Rich Tango-Lowy for that insight.)
This has always seemed charming, but maybe just a little bit…bourgie? One minute, you’re smashing your neighbors’ skulls with obsidian-edged warclubs, and the next you’re working on your barista skills? But of course, there was way more to it than that, and we’ve been getting some insights into that here in Oaxaca—insights that help to shine a light onto heirloom cacao’s outsized importance.
Oaxaca is definitely the place to think about this stuff. When it comes to foamy drinks, the place makes Rome look downright…flat. In every marketplace, you find women making the traditional drinks of their regions. Many include chocolate, and most of them come topped with a big cloud.
You find these drinks in every town of Oaxaca, says Shava Cueva, the creator of Beverages of Oaxaca, a photographic odyssey documenting these drinks and the women who make them. The recipes change from town to town, family to family, as they are passed down through the generations. Some are only made on special occasions—weddings, festivals, funerals. Some are only made once a year and involve wild ingredients that are really hard to find. All are hard to prepare. And that turns out to be important.
The perfect example of this is the chocolate atole made by Carina Santiago, a Zapotec women who lives in Teotitlán del Valle, a town in the countryside outside Oaxaca City that’s famous for its weaving. Carina’s drink requires many ingredients and takes two hours to make. It’s a variation on others in Teotitlán, but it’s her own family’s take on chocolate atole. She learned the recipe from her mother, who learned it from her mother, and so on. She frames this in a particular way: “It’s been passed down for generations from women I love.”
To start, Carina toasts cacao, wheat, her neighbor’s yellow maize, and cinnamon on a comal over a fire, one ingredient at a time, stirring with her hand and a straw brush to get just the right amount of toastiness, the smell slowly filling the room. The corners of the corn blacken. A few of them pop off the comal.
Oaxaca is the epicenter of Mexican cacao consumption. The state pounds an extraordinary amount of cacao each day, a river of drinking chocolate and mole negro pouring into the mouths of locals and tourists alike, but almost all of it is low-quality lavado, bulk cacao washed before fermentation. Locals actually prefer the harsh astringency and bitterness to balance the intense sweetness of the drinks, but Carina uses just a touch of honey in her atole and insists on an heirloom Criollo from Chiapas for its buttery richness. It makes her drink costly as well as time-consuming. Special.
By the time the maize comes off the comal, the cacao has cooled enough to peel by hand. We pitch in. Part of the deal is the pitch-in. The peeled cacao is black, shiny, polished like mahogany, completely unlike cacao roasted in an oven.
Baskets of each ingredient are placed around a metate, the curved grinding stones used by women throughout Mesoamerica for thousands of years. Carina has some she inherited from her grandmother. She kneels behind the metate on a woven pad and bears down, grinding each ingredient to powder with her stone roller. It’s all slow, meditative, the toasting and sweeping and grinding, a kind of Zen incantation.
To the toasted ingredients, she adds others like cinnamon, brown sugar, and pataxte (Theobroma bicolor, the real “white cacao”; more on that soon). The pataxte, which looks like white cacao beans, is buried underground for nine months by her daughter-in-law, and watered periodically so it ferments. That’s key to produce white cacao’s special trick: it’s a foaming agent par excellence.
Some ingredients, like cinnamon, grind easy; others, especially the corn, make even Carina break out in a sweat as she bears down on the fat heirloom grains. At a fiesta, says Carina, there will be twenty metates going at once, all the village women leaning in with their ripped forearms.
The cacao goes on the metate last, because, unlike the other ingredients, it doesn’t grind down into powder, but rather a rich paste, to which all the other ingredients are added, and everything is ground some more until you are left with a thick mole of sorts.
This goes into a gourd-shaped pot with hot water, and then the hard work continues. Out comes the molinillo, the stick used to raise the froth. Carina spins it furiously between her palms, back and forth, droplets spattering the sides of the pot, for a good ten minutes, until it looks like cocoa-colored whipped cream.
She pours corn atole into a ceramic bowl and ladles the foam on top until it’s splashing over the sides like a chocolate jacuzzi. She holds it up to us with a smile.
It’s delicious, of course, deep with the roasty notes of the corn and cacao, but that’s almost beside the point. The point is the gift. Here, I made this hard thing for you. “You have to put love into it,” she says. “When you taste it, you taste the flavor, but you also taste the love.”
And the foam is the best part, just like the Maya and Aztecs explained to the Spanish. As we dip our faces into the cloud and lick our frothy mustaches, we savor the creamy chocolate, and the symbolism as well. Carina has poured herself into this offering, elevating it with her effort from a simple drink into an airy offering, a bit of spirit caught in suspension for a brief moment in time. Drink it fast. The bubbles are already popping, the spirit returning to earth. Accept the gift.
Since our visit to Carina, I keep thinking about those old Mayan pots with the blowing spouts, how they captured the maker’s breath in a thousand bubbles, an infusion of air, maybe from someone you love. Of course the foam was the best part.
And of course chocolate was the conduit. Handmade chocolate is always hard, a shapechanger with a knack for capturing the imprints of its maker and passing them along. Here, I made this for you.
Or so it seems, this toasty night in Oaxaca. We’ll learn more as we visit cacao farmers in Tabasco and Chiapas in the coming days and learn a bit more about their lives. Abrazos from the road.
by Rowan Jacobsen
Images by Alyssa D'Adamo of the HCP
Hello, heirloom cacao lovers! Greetings from Mexico City. HCP is here with Alejandro Zamorano Escriche, the founder of Revival Cacao, in search of lost, overlooked, underappreciated, or simply impossible-to-get-your-hands-on cacao varietals that might make good candidates for future heirloom designation. It’s part of HCP’s mission to Discover, Identify, and Preserve new heirloom cacaos. While the Identify and Preserve pieces of the mission have been happening for years, everything is finally in place to proactively Discover heirloom cacaos not yet on anyone’s radar and work with the producers to usher them into the world of fine cacao, and we couldn’t be more excited. First up, Mexico and Guatemala!
Photo © Alyssa D'Adamo of the HCP
Why start here? Well, in a sense, it all started here. Just a stone’s throw away, the Aztec court first introduced the Spanish to chocolate 500 years ago. The Aztecs were getting it all from the Maya and other indigenous groups in what are now Guatemala and the southern Mexican states of Tabasco and Chiapas. (They even conquered Soconusco specifically to get ahold of its cacao, considered the finest in the world at the time.) Millions of beans were sent to the Aztec capital as tribute each year. The Spanish, of course, took over this protection racket from the Aztecs and expanded it, supplying cacao to the world (still on the backs of indigenous farmers) for centuries.
So the Maya heartlands of southern Mexico and Guatemala had the oldest unbroken cacao traditions in the world, and they never lost them. You’d think this would make the region the epicenter of heirloom cacao. And according to Alejandro, who will be HCP’s pointman for this expedition—it is! In terms of weird and delicious cacaos grown in the middle of nowhere by people who have been at it for centuries, Mexico is the motherlode.
Yet ironically, according to Alejandro, very few of these desirable cacaos ever make it into a chocolate bar or leave the country. Mexico is the drinking-chocolate capital of the universe—another unbroken tradition—and virtually every bean produced domestically is also consumed domestically.
That sounds like a good thing, but all is not well in the world of Mexican cacao. Mexico may be the drinking-chocolate capital of the universe, but that doesn’t make it the cacao-appreciation capital of the universe. The tradition here is to drink your chocolate so sweet that any fine points of flavor are hopelessly lost, so any especially delicious beans (and we are talking about the epicenter of criollo here) go for the same low price as any other beans.
In such an environment, why would these cacaos still exist? Thanks to some combination of inertia, nostalgia, and love, says Alejandro. The old farmers still growing these quirky old varieties have known these trees their whole lives. Sometimes the trees predate the farmers. No, they’re not commercially viable—at least at current prices—but who cares? Neither is your old farmdog, but that’s no reason to get rid of him. He’s part of the family.
Sounds like a job for HCP! And the timing is good. Although Mexico has barely had a culture of bean-to-bar chocolate, and its cacao farmers have had almost no encouragement to maintain their heirloom varieties, things are starting to change. Here in Mexico City, you can sense the first signs of revolution, a nascent culture of chocolate adoration that could awaken this sleeping giant.
Let’s start with Alejandro, who launched his company, Revival Cacao, six years ago to give these cacaos the rapt attention they deserve—to return Mexico to its rightful position at the top of the cacao pyramid. He’s tracked down exceptional beans and farmers across Tabasco, Chiapas, and Oaxaca, and he supplies those beans to the rare bean-to-bar maker in Mexico, such as Cuna de Piedra. He’s even begun to export to the United States.
Alejandro feels that many of these farms contain varieties that have everything it takes to achieve heirloom status, and he’s thrilled that HCP is taking a look. He’ll be our pointman in Mexico, collecting samples from dozens of farms, as well as numerous wild areas, and submitting them for heirloom consideration. We’ll be tagging along, so expect to hear much more about that in the coming days.
And along the way, you’ll hear about many other sparks of light in Mexico’s cacao awakening, some of which are flaring up right here in Mexico City. Let’s start with the Museum of Chocolate, aka MuCho. Launched in an elegant century-old building in Mexico’s historic district by architect Ana Rita García-Lascuraín, MuCho holds an extraordinary display of artifacts and dioramas covering both Mexico’s prehistoric and post-Conquest chocolate past, but it’s also remarkably hands-on. Visitors can grind cacao on a metate, as it’s been done for millennia, and they can sample MuCho’s own bean-to-bar chocolate, handmade on site using fine-flavor cacao from Mexican producers. Every day, hundreds of people walk out of MuCho’s doors with a new understanding of the heights Mexican chocolate once had—and could have again.
And for an even better sense of that future, meet the young couple making it happen just a few blocks away at La Rifa, Mexico City’s best chocolateria. Mónica Lozano and Daniel Reza have devoted themselves to working directly with small-scale cacao farmers in Tabasco and Chiapas, sourcing multiple varieties of criollo—including several different white cacaos—and turning them into half a dozen single-variety bars. They’ll even make you a super-frothy, 100% unsweetened, incredibly powerful drinking chocolate— possibly a first in Mexico City!
But as encouraging as these examples are, they are few and far between. These cacaos and regions are still virtually unknown to the greater chocolate world. So there’s work to be done. Something very special—something that couldn’t be more fundamental to chocolate’s history and identity—still exists in the famed regions of Chontalpa and Soconusco, but how much longer it can survive without outside help is anyone’s guess. The farmers certainly aren’t getting any younger. As Alejandro says, “It’s now or never.”
So here we go. We’re headed to Oaxaca City, the heart of Mexico’s cacao traditions, both ancient and contemporary, to get a grounding in those traditions. What do they mean to Mexican culture, what role do they have in contemporary Oaxacan life, and what can HCP do to help support that cacao culture and allow it to flourish in the modern world? After that, some hellacious roads and the deep jungle await. Wish us luck, and please follow along!