Etsy Kitchen Histories: Ancient Hot Chocolate

chocolate3Hot chocolate, frothed with a molnillo.

In my latest post for Etsy, I experiment with making hot chocolate–Ancient Mesoamerican style:

In both Maya and Aztec art there are depictions of elegant women pouring liquid chocolate between two vessels: one on the ground and one held at chest height. Pouring the chocolate back and forth aerates and froths the drink as it falls through space, like the waterfall in Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. A thick head of froth was seen as the sign of a fine cup of chocolate. The method seemed simple enough, so I placed one bowl on the kitchen tile, held one in the air, and gently poured. Chocolate spattered all over my floor.

Despite my best efforts, my chocolate wouldn’t froth. I found the answer to my problem in Mary Roach’s new book  Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal, all about the science of eating (it’s great!). In a footnote about spit bubbles, she explains froth is caused by proteins, which hold air into a liquid when beaten, like whipping cream or making meringue. Cacao has a little bit of protein, but apparently not enough to create a foamy head. The Mexican Cook Book Devoted to the American Homes,  written in 1947  by a Mexican woman, suggests adding eggs into the cacao mixture–for the express purpose of frothing:

Almonds are usually added to the home-made chocolate, as they give it a very good taste, and also boiled egg yolks, these with the primary purpose of having the chocolate froth up upon being boiled.

I didn’t try hard boiled eggs as she suggested, but I did add a raw egg white, and the concoction foamed easily. The 1947 book is a blend of pre- and post- Colombian chocolate making techniques; and while eggs were available to the Maya and Aztec (from wild birds (updated: or turkeys or Muscovy ducks)) I can’t say if they would have been used in chocolate making.

cacao2A cacao bean with the nibs inside.

The entire recipe is below, and it gives an interesting look into the process of making chocolate. You can read more about my chocolate making experiences on Etsy!


Old Fashioned Chocolate a la Mexicana
From Mexican Cook Book Devoted to the American Homes, 1947
By Josefina Valazquez de Leon

1 1/2 pounds of Tabasco cocoa (a regional Mexican cacao)
10 ounces Maracaibo cocoa (Venezuelan cacao)
2 pounds of sugar.
4 ounces of almonds.
1/2 ounce cinnamon.
2 boiled egg yolks

Have the cocoa roasted in a frying pan as much at to suit your taste (some persons like it dark and others light). Once roasted let it cool down take the shell off to better it so there be no shell left on it. (This shell is saved to make refreshments, gruel and “champurrado“). In special metate for grinding the cocoa, the sugar is first ground together with the almonds (these latter slightly roasted and ground shell and all), adding also the egg yolks. After all this has been well ground is placed aside and fire put under the metate grinding the cocoa next, once roasted, of course. When it is well reground the sugar and the other ingredients are added and is again ground over until all of it is well mixed and formed into a paste which does not stick to the metate. Then one proceed to mould it…The paste is then poured on the moulds and pressed and rubbed with the hand so as to make it adquire (sic) a shining surface and immediately is marked with a knife in order to divide each mould contents into sixteen equal parts each of these parts being in turn equal to one ounce.

Video: Visiting a Vanilla Plantation

Vanilla from Sarah Lohman on Vimeo.

While I was honeymooning in Mexico this summer, I dragged my new husband to a remote part of Mexico to visit a vanilla plantation. To be honest, he kinda relished the dangerous drive through the mountains, including the switchbacks and hairpin turns by sheer cliffs.  We went way out of the way because I wanted to see vanilla grown at its point of origin, the state of Veracruz.

For a very long time, Vanilla was transplanted outside of Mexico in vain. The orchid owed its pollination to a small bee native to Veracruz, so transplanted plants blossomed, but never fruited. In 1842, a method for artificially pollinating vanilla was discovered and the industry was born. Ironically, the bee is no where to be found ion Mexican Vanilla plantations today; plantation owner Norma Gaya believes years of pesticide-laced vanilla crops are to blame.  The Gaya plantation, the largest in Mexico, is spreading organic growing practices in hopes this natural pollinator will return

We spent a day at the Gaya plantation, and got a hands on look at how vanilla is grown.  Check out the video to follow along on my adventure!

Oh, and if you’re wondering if my whole honeymoon was trekking through the jungle, fret not. The homeland of vanilla just happens to be closest to one of the most beautiful, undeveloped stretches of beach in Mexico, the Costa Esmerelda. Everybody’s a winner.

IMG_0892Beach time at the Costa Esmerelda.

By the way, the plantation tour was facilitated by Tia Stephanie Tours, who is designing a tour of the State of Veracruz. It’s off the beaten path and well worth it.

Taste History Today: Pulque

pulqueA flight of pulque. Clockwise from the top: oatmeal, guava, lime, celery, mango, and plain in the center.

We were way too old to be in this place. We were definitely the creepy old couple.  Looking around the bar, most of the people drinking around us looked to be in their early twenties, and perhaps younger: the drinking age in Mexico is 18, after all.  And more than that, there was a youthful rebelliousness in this crowd seldom seen Mexico City: in general mild temperatures and Catholicism resulted in conservative dress. But in the pulqueria, facial piercings were the norm, women bared their shoulders, and one crusty punkette asked if we would like to buy a pot brownie (brownie de cannabis).

My husband and I were recently married (late in life, by some standards, at the ages of 30 and 31) and honeymooning in Mexico City, when curiosity led us to a Pulqueria.  Pulque is an ancient drink made from the fermented sap of the agave; it is thought to have been developed at least 2,000 years ago.  Distill that juice, and you get tequila (or mezcal); ferment it like beer, and you get pulque, thick and milky white.  A staple of Aztec life, for many years it survived as a drink of the working class; but recently, pulque has been receiving press for its growing popularity amongst Mexico City’s youth.

A 1,000 year old mural depicted people drinking pulque. (source)

The Pulqueria La Risa, where we sat, has been pouring the thick beverage for over a century. In the modern incarnation of this drink, fruit juices, or nuts and grains along with sugar are added. On the day we visited, the sabores de dia included Guava, Mango, Celery, Blackberry, Oatmeal, and Pine Nut.  In its pure state, I found pulque to taste like stomach acid, so the addition of sweet fruit juice is a huge improvement.  The result is something like a wine cooler: sweet in flavor, but with an ABV on level with a beer.

IMG_0258Inside Pulqueria La Risa.

I think it’s wine cooler-like qualities are responsible for its resurgence amongst the young.  The drink is even beginning to make its way to New York City; Pulqueria, in lower Manhattan, offers ginger-peach and tomatillo pulques alongside a full Mexcian menu. A glass of pulque costs $14, about ten times the going price in Mexico city.

Do I think pulque will be a huge hit north of the border? Not likely. After carving out a small corner in the densely packed bar, my husband and I ordered a pitcher of oatmeal pulque.  Sweetened and topped with cinnamon, its the breakfast that gets you drunk.  We had planned to order several pitchers, and perhaps a discrete, foam, to-go cup, and get slowly drunk on a hot afternoon.  But after the first pitcher, our stomachs were full and grossly distended. Pulque is often known as a meal in a glass, packed full of calories and vitamins, and is incredibly filling. We left, sober and gassy, and fairly confident that that was the first, and last time, we’d try to get drunk on pulque.