Posted in Kafevend Blog

Earlier this month,we wrote about chocolate in Peru and Colombia. For those who enjoy their mug of cocoa in the evening, our look at the Colombian company Hasslachers may have motivated you to go out and get some of their chocolate and panella for a taste of hot chocolate from the cradle of cocoa. It is in Central America, or Mesoamerica, that the Theobroma Cacao tree originates. Why not go and make yourself a cup and then read on to see how your favourite drink got started.

It can be very difficult to work out when an ancient species of plant first appears and where. Instead it is easier to roughly work out when humans first come into contact with them. In the case of cocoa, or cacao as we shall refer to it, the remnants of millenia old ceramic jars and pots tell us that a people known as the Mokaya used it first. They lived along the south western coast of modern day Guatemala and South Mexico almost 4,000 years ago.

The earliest cacao drink is thought to have been made not from the beans, but the white pulp that surrounds them inside the pod. This sugary substance is likely to have been used in a fermentation process to make an alcoholic drink. The rise of the Olmec civilization saw both the earliest known domestication of the cacao plant along with a change in its use. Instead of being a simple drink for farmers, it saw use in both a medicinal and religious or ritual context.

Evidence for the use of cacao beans themselves being used to make a drink was found in a Mayan tomb dating back to the late 5th century C.E., thanks again to pottery. More interestingly is cacao's appearance in remnants of Mayan Heiroglyphic writing. Being an image heavy language, it is easy to discern cacao pods and the processes used to make drinks with them from the detailed glyphs left behind.

The Aztecs were mad for cacao. Whilst their location in the Mexican highlands was unsuitable for its cultivation, they were able to import it as a luxury from conquered nations who paid it as a tax. They even used it as a form of currency. The royal court of Moctezuma II drank huge amounts of cacao. Moctezuma himself apparently drank nothing else, and would get through 60 servings a day. During the early 16th century C.E., Spanish soldiers who accompanied Hernán Cortés during the Spanish conquest of the area talked about the drink, and it appears that they didn't think much of it.

The cacao drink the Spanish encountered was a far cry from the hot chocolate we have today. Firstly, it was cold. Sugar had not been introduced to the region either, and so the drink was bitter. The bitterness was masked by the addition of spices like chilli which made for a potent flavour. Finally, the drink was worked into a froth either by the use of a whisk known as a molinillo or by repeatedly pouring it from a height into alternating pots. What a journey that bitter cocoa from the past has taken on its way to becoming today's favourite comfort drink.

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