Hello Friends and Fellow Fermenters,
In our last post we learned about 9,000 year-old traces of beer-wine found in ceramic vessels in Jiahu, China, and also about the 8,000-year history of Georgian winemaking in giant ceramic pots called kvevri. In this post we’ll travel down south and forward in time to Mesoamerica – specifically to the Ulúa Valley circa 1100 BC in what is now northern Honduras. There in the city of Puerto Escondido we’ll pick up the earliest threads in the story of how humans have used cacao – the plant we know as the basis for chocolate.
Researchers recently analyzed chemical residues extracted from pottery sherds found at Puerto Escondido, and found traces of theobromine and caffeine – chemicals found together only in cacao products. The experts determined that what they found was most likely a fermented beverage made from the pulpy outer part of the cacao pod. Chocolate itself is not made from the pulp, but from the seeds inside, which have been fermented in the pulp liquid for several days.
The particular long-necked shape of the ceramic vessels found at Puerto Escondido indicates that it was used for a beer-like drink rather the frothy beverage such as the drink enjoyed by later Olmec, Mayan and Aztec cultures. These findings extend the cacao story further into history – how it made its way from wild plants in the Amazon to Chaco Canyon in what is now Arizona, and brings the evidence of the cacao drink 500 year back in time.
The Olmecs called it Ka-ka-wa. It is currently believed that they were the first to process the cacao beans into chocolate. Most of us are not aware that the creation of chocolate involves fermentation. Cacao beans are fermented before drying, roasting, and winnowing. Specialized ceramic vessels were employed in fermenting, preparing and serving the drink. Mesoamerican cultures mixed the prepared cacao bean paste with water and spices, and then frothed the mixture by using a specialized ceramic mug with an additional narrow spout one could blow through to create the froth. The additives, such as hot chilies, ground maize, spices, peanut butter, and vanilla, were used to thicken and flavor. The froth enhanced the taste and aroma of the chocolate drink. Another way to generate the foam in the coco drink was pouring it from one cup to another several times, which I used to do endlessly for my young boys.
The Mayans called it kakaw. Kakaw figured prominently in their religion and culture. Every year they would gather to honor Ek Chuah, the god of cacao. They introduced a specialized, stubby vessel, which was designed to enhance the drink’s frothiness. They drank it hot, in contrast to the Aztecs, who drank it cold. Many of the vessels used for drinking the cacao mixture featured elaborate designs, and were affordable only by the rich. Cacao was used in rituals, festivals and funerals. Mayans also used the beans as a medium of exchange. One could get a rabbit for ten beans, or a slave for a hundred.
The Aztecs called it Xocolatl. As in Mayan culture, it was central to daily and ritual life. The Aztecs connected xocolatl to the feathered serpent god Quetzalcoatl, and considered the cacao tree to be a bridge between heaven and earth. They believed that Quetzalcoatl had been shunned by the other gods for sharing xocolatl with humans. Cacao did not grow in the central valley of Mexico, so the Aztecs had to import cacao, which they did by forcing a tribute from their subjected states.
There were myriad medicinal uses for cacao – it was used to treat fever, abdominal pain, burns and cuts. It was used to increase energy, longevity and sexual appetite. The drink was generally reserved for the elites, and was forbidden to women and children. The emperor Moctezuma reportedly drank nothing else!
The Spanish, who brought the cacao back home, initially did not care for the drink, though they acknowledged its merit as an energy drink. They preferred the intoxicating effect of drinks or the sweeter flavor. And indeed mixing the cacao with sugar was the way it was introduced to the European elite. In recent times, however, there has developed a new interest in ancient and traditional forms of chocolate – raw, intense, bitter and salty. Today, in Mexico City and elsewhere, one can find and enjoy chocolate drinks based on Aztec recipes.
Now, my friends, we can breathe deeply and hold tight to our hot chocolate ceramic cup that contains in itself all the years and knowledge of ceramics and cacao!
Please stay tuned for more posts in which we make connections, between fermenting and ceramics in our distant past, and our healthy lives today!
I hope to see you soon in person or online.