WHEN Mexicans ask for chocolate, they aren't looking for a Nestle's Crunch bar.
"Chocolate candy is a European invention," explains Maria Teresa Nunez de Gomez, proprietor of Guelaguetza Chocolate in Oaxaca.
Here, chocolate is a hot beverage, made with water. In the same way that Brits take afternoon tea and Americans gulp morning coffee, southern Mexicans drink chocolate after meals.
It's something of a dietary legacy. The Mayans, Aztecs, and Toltecs and their ancestors had been sipping "xocoatl" for at least 2,000 years before Christopher Columbus and a parade of Western "visitors" dropped in during the early 1500s. "Xocoatl" is Nahuatl for "bitter drink." When the Spanish Conquistadores showed up, they weren't particularly impressed by Montezuma's brew. But they were intrigued enough to bring the cacao beans back to Spain. Sugar was added, and it quickly became a favorite of royalt y.
Modern Mexicans aren't as cocoa crazy as their ancestors. But in Oaxaca, a state with one of the highest indigenous populations in Mexico, the tradition of having a daily "cuppa" remains strong. You won't find stores selling exotic blends in the way coffee is marketed as an upscale beverage in the United States. But every self-respecting mother in Oaxaca has her own personal recipe for hot chocolate.
On a recent visit, Mrs. Rosita Morales Garcia de Soriano entrusted me with her family formula and instructions on how to get to the chocolate miller in downtown Oaxaca. Chocolate millers are a relatively new trade in southern Mexico. Until 1955, when the Gomez family made the necessary conversions to a corn-milling machine used for making tortillas, Oaxacans ground their chocolate by hand.
The cacao beans were dried in the sun and roasted in an earthen pot. Next, they were mashed on a hollow stone, known as a "metate" over a low fire. (The stone is still used today by many poor Mexicans to grind corn for tortillas.) Then the beans were painstakingly crushed into a paste, with various herbs and spices mixed in.
Today, Oaxacans need only hand the recipe to Mrs. Gomez at Guelaguetza or one of the other chocolate millers in town. She scoops the cacao beans out of a huge burlap sack, then weighs them on an old scale. The appropriate amounts of almonds, sticks of cinnamon, vanilla, or other spices are also weighed. The dry ingredients are tossed into one of seven milling machines along the wall. Within seconds, the aroma of chocolate explodes into the air as a dark, warm, paste oozes out of the mill, spilling into a
tin washtub filled with the proper amount of refined sugar. The paste and sugar are then mixed with a wooden spoon.
One takes the fresh brown paste home in a clear plastic bag. Mrs. Gomez also sells prepackaged hot chocolate, similar to what's available in grocery stores around Mexico. "Our prices can't compete with the big chocolate companies. But this is the highest quality, hand-made chocolate. We use top grade beans from Tabasco and Chiapas," she boasts.
At home, Mrs. Soriano molds the chocolate glob into a dozen oversized golf balls, that harden as they cool. Plopped into a pot of boiling water, each ball makes enough for a family of six - or an Aztec emperor and a handful of high priests.