Mexico’s Sweet Gold

This was originally written on spec for The Guardian, but not published. (To read more of my journalism, click here.)

I was sitting in the 20th of November market in Oaxaca, Mexico sipping my post-lunch chocolate con leche when a short, sturdy old man, with skin about the color of my beverage walked up to me. He looked at the foaming bowl in my hand and nodded, approvingly. “In Oaxaca,” he said in a bassy growl, “no coca cola! Only chocolate!” And giving me a hearty punch in the arm, he walked on.

I had came to Mexico in search of chocolate, not gold. When Cortes and the Conquistadors arrived in Mexico in the sixteenth century in search of El Dorado, they were surprised to find that the chief coin of the realm in Mocteczuma’s court was not the shiny, precious metal of their dreams, but the beans of the cacao tree. Diaz del Castillo, a soldier in Cortez’s army described how Mocteczuma’s men “brought in cups of fine gold, whith a certain drink made of the cacao itself which they said was effectual to provoke lustfull desires toward women.”
The gourmands of sixteenth century New Spain were less than impressed with the beverage however, and complained about the oily “skumme” which floated on its surface. Nevertheless, they brought the bean back to Europe and by the eighteenth century, chocolate drinking was highly fashionable among the aristocracy of Europe, who sipped the drink out of delicate cups in the mid morning from their beds in Versailles.

Alas, as we know, coffee, tea and the French revolution put an end to all of that, relegating chocolate drinking for the most part to a nocturnal activity for the caffeine-phobic. Meanwhile, the cocoa bean itself was put to other uses, becoming the worldwide number one confection, available in dizzying varieties, from the humblest Cadbury Bar to the dazzling bittersweet creations of the worlds master-chocolatiers in Paris, Milan and Zurich.
On a recent trip to Paris, I had come across a chocolatier in Paris’ chic Saint Germain neighborhood (La Maison du Chocolat), selling exquisite chocolates with Aztec and Mayan symbols carved onto the faces of the chocolate. How piquante it would be, I thought to myself, as I devoured a box with the companion of my choice, if chocolate was still used in Mexico!

A few months later, I was shopping in my local supermarket, when I noticed a that there was a Mexican brand of drinking chocolate lurking in the ethnic foods aisle, called Ibarra. Unlike the Dutch-processed cocoa familiar to most gringos, a brown floury powder from which all the oil or cocoa butter has been removed, this cocoa came in large round coin-like tablets, with the name of the maker emblazoned on them. The cooking method is simple. You scald milk as you would with cocoa powder, break up one of the tablets into small pieces and melt it in the hot milk, drop the mixture in a blender for a minute or two and then serve. Although excessively sweet, I loved the dark, smoky intensity of the drink. Reasoning that if such a product was available in my local supermarket then chocolate drinking must surely be alive and well in Mexico itself, I determined to go on a quest for “el oro dulce”, Mexico’s sweet gold.

On the plane to Mexico City, I was seated next to one of newly elected President Fox’s aides, who nodded approvingly at my half-read copy of Mayan code-breaking anthropologists Sophie and Michael Coe’s True History of Chocolate. Yes, he said, Mexicans are still passionate about chocolate – after all, they invented it. The Coes’ book backs him up. As the plane flew over the vast expanse of Mexico City, he suggested that the best cup of chocolate would be found at the City’s legendary Cafe de Tacuba, an elegant mural and painting covered hostelry near the Zocalo that dates back to 1912.

I enjoyed Tacuba’s elegant, metropolitan chocolate, and the gorgeous environment in which it was served, but I felt that the chocolate was … diplomatic, overly cautious and thus indistinguishable from any other “good” cup of chocolate in the world. So I wandered the city, drinking endless cups of Nescafe like everyone else and looking at the commercial drinking chocolate in the markets – the same chocolate that was for sale in Williamsburg. For succor, I gnawed on a slab of Valrhona cooking chocolate that a chef friend had given me as a parting gift, savoring its bitterness. Where was the real Mexican chocolate?

Driving home from the mariachis at the Plaza Garibaldi one night, a blasting brass band rendition of the Bee Gees “Staying Alive” still echoing through my head, local friends told us about El Moro, a 68 year old chocolateria that stayed open 24 hours a day. Curious, we swung the car around and arrived a little after midnight, to find the large tiled room packed with Mexican families feasting, while the TVs flickered on the walls.

El Moro’s menu is on the wall too. It has only two items: chocolate and churros. Churros, in case you’re wondering, are ten inch long strips of deep fried dough, dusted with sugar – a slender straight donut, perfect for dipping in the chocolate, which comes in four flavors at El Moro: Mexican, Spanish, French and Special. Taking our cue from the Mexican families around us, we ordered a copious spread of cocoa brews, along with a small mountain of churros. The Spanish was an intense, fiercely chocolatey brew, with dark depths in which cinnamon and vanilla flavors rose to the surface, requiring an extra hit of sugar to stand up to the bitterness of the brew. Like many of the other patrons, we requested a jug of hot milk to dilute the brew to the point where it could be drunk rather than eaten with a spoon. The Mexican was similar in style, but sweeter still. I asked the patron, Sr. Francisco Iriarte, why the cocoa was so sweet. He replied that the chocolateria has been in the Iriarte family since the 30s, when they emigrated from Spain, where the custom is to drink it thick and sweet. Personally, I liked the French the best, milkier, not too sweet but packed with cocoa flavor.
Although indisputably a chocolate drinker’s heaven, El Moro’s origins are in Spain – and in metropolitan Mexico City. But I wanted to go back to the time before the Spanish arrived, bringing cattle and therefore milk to mix into the chocolate (a good thing, according to chocolate guru Johnathan Ott, since the milk apparently cancels out the potential carcigenicity of the tannins in the cocoa). So I headed south to Oaxaca.

The chocolate center of Oaxaca is Oaxaca City’s 20 de Noviembre market, where a plethora of market stalls sell the beverage, alongside machetes, marimbas and piles of fried grasshoppers (chapulines). In Oaxaca chocolate is made with your choice of milk or water, and served in a cafe au lait type bowl. The milk drink is familiar to sippers of cocoa worldwide, although somewhat stronger. Great pride and attention however is taken with the foam (or espuma) that tops the chocolate bowl. Although commercial Mexican brands of cocoa like Ibarra advise the use of a blender to make this foam, the traditional way is to use a molinillo, a wooden whisk that looks like a magic wand, which is placed inside the chocolate bowl and spun between the hands to whip up the magic foam. When made with water, as it was in pre-Colombia times, the cocoa flavor comes through much more strongly, and other spices, including chili peppers, are often added to the brew, for balance.

The preferred time for Oaxacans to drink their chocolate is in the morning, at 6 a.m. In a country where the coffee is mostly depressing cups of Nescafe and tea from the tea bush is merely an affectation of the wealthy or of homesick Brits, people get their hit of caffeine from a sturdy cup of morning chocolate, often mixing the chocolate into the corn porridge or atole that is the prefered breakfast dish. While the humble cup of steaming cocoa enjoyed in England and America is relatively low in caffeine, the intensely cocoafied brews enjoyed in Oaxaca are so dense with cacao that you do get a little caffeine hit off them, although theobromine, said to be the source of chocolate’s aphrodisiac powers, is also a mild heart stimulant, giving you a little blood rush something like a sweet, cheap low-dose Viagra.
Ah yes, Viagra. Many people in Mexico told me about chocolate’s aphrodisiac powers in a tone that resembled national pride. Being nothing if not a thorough reporter, determined to bring my finely-honed mind to bear on the problems most afflicting mankind, I was of course curious to learn whether the tales of chocolate’s aphrodisiac qualities were true.

Anthropologists like the Coes are dismissive on this subject, claiming that the tale is nothing more than a colonial fantasy – but theobromine, the most important alkaloid in chocolate is known to act as a mild heart (or blood?) stimulant, and is thus a pretty good simulator of arousal, whether sexual or otherwise. It is of course true that you can buy copious quantities of chocolate anywhere, including your local newsagent, but what with our poor Spanish, the tedium of Mexican TV and the fact that nearly every store for blocks around sold nothing but chocolate, the research team of two in my hotel room found ample time to conduct a thorough study of the issue, and concluded that whatever the anthropologists and psychologists say, chocolate creates a reproducible sensation that for all intents and purposes, is the same as horniness.

Although you can drink chocolate in the Oaxaca markets, the ultimate way Zapotec peasants get their daily dose of theobromine is to buy the raw cocoa beans from the Oaxaca market, toast them, and then grind them in a heated metate or grinding stone. For those people who lack the time (several hours) required to do this but unwilling to embrace the prepackaged products of Nestle or Ibarra, a number of chocolate grinders around the market in Oaxaca will roast and grind cocoa beans for you, in the same way that a good coffee store in El Norte will. These stores exude a powerful smell of cacao that can be sniffed for blocks around.

King of the chocolate barrio is the 50 year old Chocolate Mayordomo, where young Zapotec men and women grind up kilo upon kilo of cocoa for dignified looking Donas and sharp looking young men, in a row of three foot high grinding machines. The cocoa is grinded with canilla (soft stick cinnamon) and almonds, followed by hair-raisingly vast quantities of sugar, producing a familiar looking, but pleasingly bitter (or semisweet) cocoa powder.

Chocolate is in fact a passion pretty much everywhere in Mexico, and traces of its pre-Colombian roots can still be found. A few pounds heavier from all that cocoa butter, but indisputably happy, I still wanted to know the secret of great chocolate. So I asked Mayordomo’s owner,Sr. Flores and his daughter Zoila. They laughed and said “no exist!!!” But on further consideration they concured with Sr. Iriarte of El Moro’s opinion: “pure cacao, careful preparation, and love!”