It’s creamy, dark and delicious. Squares, powder, truffles. Ghirardelli, Lindt, Purdy’s. Mousse, pudding, cake. It’s a hot drink on a cold day, it’s a pick-me-up after a hard day, it’s an “I love you” any day.
The ancient Maya, original cultivators of cacao, would likely find their “gift from the gods” completely unrecognizable. Somewhat similar, perhaps, to my own shock several years ago upon discovering true chocolate, the Mayan reality of our sweet treat.
We went with a visiting family this week to tour the nursery of cacao cultivators a few hours away. It reminded me of how incredibly amazing the transformation of cacao is and how much I’d love for you to experience the south of Mexico.
Chocolate was first used as a hot drink. The Mayans would dry, roast and pound the beans, mixing it with water. They used no sugar, which obviously resulted in an incredibly bitter and potent liquid. The Aztec word for this drink is xococatl: literally, bitter water. The Maya also mixed ground corn and water with cacao into a drink still consumed today known as pozol. Chocolate beans were so valuable, they actually became a common currency during the classical period.
After the Aztecs expanded into Mayan territory (they enjoyed it with the additions of cinnamon, vanilla or allspice) and after the Spaniards expanded across the ocean into Aztec territory, cacao eventually made its way to Europe. Aristocratic families began ensuring their worldy wise status by offering the drink along with tea and coffee and crumpets. Those silver, gilded trays were a far cry from chocolate’s familiar home; dried out jicara or clay under a guano roof, mud walls in the middle of the mayan jungle! Of course, it didn’t take long for refined taste buds to decide sugar would be an unspeakable improvement.
The cacao thrives in hot, humid climates. The smaller trees benefit from larger shade trees like mango or ceiba. The fruit grows on the trunk or branches and it takes three to five years for the first harvest.
Cacao grows in pods and there are several different kinds, including yellow and red. As most fruit, the pod begins as green and changes color as it matures.
Each bean is coated in a white substance which is not only consumable but delicious as well! They use it to make juice and jams. The bean is extracted, dried and roasted then crushed to produce a thick, somewhat pasty powder (which is also delicious!). The fat and chocolate are usually separated, the fat used for white chocolate and cosmetics, the chocolate for cocoa powder and the ensuing etcetera uses of pure chocolate.
Although chocolate is in demand almost the world over, many cultivators of this crop have chosen to focus on other means of employment. Farming is hard no matter where and especially when manufacturers are looking to pay the least possible for raw material. We visited a corporation of cacao growers in Tabasco where they are working to revive the industry.
Next time you have a chocolate bar, maybe you could remember the people of southern Mexico in prayer, that God would meet not only their immense physical needs but that they would turn to Christ and be fully satisfied in Him.