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.