General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 19 Nov 2019/6 Lizard
Text Size:

Link to page about the Maya Calendar
Today's Maya date is: 13.0.7.0.4 - 2525 days into the new cycle!
Link to page of interest to teachers
Click to find out how we can help you!
Search the Site (type in white box):

Guess emoticon Guess...

what health benefits have been attributed to chocolate?
Guess correctly button

Article suitable for older students

Chocolatier Paul Young creating ‘Aztec’ style chocolate

How Aztec and Maya chocolate was prepared

Whilst we now have several hugely informative articles on our site exploring the history and cultural importance of chocolate in ancient Mesoamerica, up till now we haven’t had a guide to how chocolate was actually prepared. Having been asked to advise on the upcoming (2019) new observational documentary TV series for Channel 5 ‘The Wonderful World of Chocolate’, we thought it was a good time to remedy this. This is NOT an attempt to provide a simple ‘Aztec chocolate recipe’, more an explanation of just how many different ways there were in ancient times to prepare that most refreshing drink made of cacao. Seen here (right) is the London-based chocolatier Paul Young being filmed for the series... (Written/compiled by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Pic 1: Much prized cacao: exhibition display, Cadbury’s World, Bournville
Pic 1: Much prized cacao: exhibition display, Cadbury’s World, Bournville (Click on image to enlarge)

In simplistic terms, cacao trees (the source of chocolate) did not grow in the cool central basin of Mexico - the Aztec homeland - whereas it DID grow in hot, humid, tropical, forested, lowland Maya territory. Whilst for both it was a sacred drink, it was particularly highly prized by the Mexica, who had either to trade for it - from the huge Chontalpa plantations of Tabasco or from Izalco, far to the south-east (modern-day El Salvador) - or to exact it in tribute from the key Aztec-controlled cacao producing province of Soconusco (Xoconochco) on the Pacific coast. This last source supplied around five tons of cacao to the Mexica emperor every year!

Pic 2: 16th century engraving showing the ‘Cacahuate’ cacao tree, beside an all-important shading tree, and beans drying in the sun
Pic 2: 16th century engraving showing the ‘Cacahuate’ cacao tree, beside an all-important shading tree, and beans drying in the sun (Click on image to enlarge)

It’s worth noting at this point that there are some 20 different species of cultivated Theobrama Cacao tree, each producing its own unique fruit. Most botanists today believe that the Aztecs imported all their cacao from the same criollo subspecies, the most common Mesoamerican variety. The fruit grows directly from the trunk, each ‘pod’ containing some 25-40 ‘beans’, seeds or kernels. What was traded was NOT the pods but rather the beans inside. It was not a simple case of splitting open the pod and removing the seeds. The beans, plus surrounding white pulp, have to be left in the warm open air - but turned from time to time - to ferment over nearly a week - by which time the seeds are starting to germinate briefly, and the pulp to evaporate. This is important: no fermentation/germination, no chocolate flavour! They are then cleaned, spread in the sun (pic 2) to dry for up to two weeks, and then roasted for 1-2 hours. Only at this stage would they be ready to be transported to market...

Pic 3: Cacao beans and peeled nibs on a stone metate (L); tablet of hardened cacao paste (R)
Pic 3: Cacao beans and peeled nibs on a stone metate (L); tablet of hardened cacao paste (R) (Click on image to enlarge)

Their destination having been reached, the next stage of processing the cacao beans would begin: the shells were peeled off one by one (a process called ‘winnowing’), leaving the ‘nibs’ ready to be ground to a paste on a stone metate (pic 3, left). At this point, the paste could be allowed to solidify into a block or tablet (pic 3, right), for easy storage, transport and subsequent use. Such tablets could apparently be kept for up to two years, and it was most likely to have been in this form that Aztec warriors carried a supply of chocolate during military campaigns.
Note that so far, the preparation of cacao into a drink had passed through several ‘standard’ steps. From now on, flavours and textures would be added - with a range of options, reflecting myriad regional recipes. The simplest mix was cacao with ground maize (corn) and water, providing a healthy, ‘cheap-and-cheerful’ gruel, that 16th century Spanish friar Toribio Motolinía described as ‘a very common drink’. Frequently combined with ground chilli, this ‘poor man’s chocolate’ was consumed throughout Mesoamerica.

Pic 4: Three prized chocolate flavourings: ‘mecaxochitl’ and vanilla (L) and ‘hueinacaztli’ (R). Badianus Manuscript fol. 56v
Pic 4: Three prized chocolate flavourings: ‘mecaxochitl’ and vanilla (L) and ‘hueinacaztli’ (R). Badianus Manuscript fol. 56v (Click on image to enlarge)

The use of these ‘cacao-extenders’, in Sophie and Michael Coe’s words, ‘adulterated’ the chocolate, effectively watering it down - in much the same way as today’s (less nutritious) supermarket chocolate bars are watered down with milk and sugar.
Elite cacao drinks contained pure cacao, to which were added several subtle - and often highly prized - ground and roasted flavourings and spices, rendering them fit for nobles and the very rich.
For the Aztecs, the premier flavouring was hueinacaztli (pic 4, right), identified by the Coes as ‘the thick, ear-shaped petal of the flower of the Cymbopetalum penduliflorum, a tree of the Annonaceae or custard-apple family, which grows in the tropical lowland forests of Veracruz, Oaxcaca, and Chiapas’.
Shown alongside hueinacaztli in picture 4 (on the left, both growing together) are mecaxochitl (‘cord-flower) - with small orange flowers - and tlilxochitl (‘black flower’) or, to us, vanilla (Vanilla planifolia), whose seed-pods (it is these, not the flowers, that are black, when fermented and dried) were a key flavouring in Aztec chocolate.

Pic 5: ‘Izquixochitl’ (arrowed); Badianus Manuscript fol. 39r
Pic 5: ‘Izquixochitl’ (arrowed); Badianus Manuscript fol. 39r (Click on image to enlarge)

Another tree, ‘tall, fine-looking, with a white flower that looks like a dog-rose, and with a rose scent and flavour’ (Coe & Coe), whose scented flowers were used to flavour both chocolate and tobacco was izquixochitl (‘popcorn flower’) - probably the tree Bourreria huanita. Izquixochitl was specifically mentioned in Sahagún’s Florentine Codex as being important in the preparation of chilled chocolate drinks. In fact, Sahagún goes on to provide a detailed list of different-coloured chocolate beverages prepared for the Aztec ruler - green, honeyed, bright red, orange-red, rose-coloured, black, white...
The red-coloured chocolate was probably produced by adding achiote (the Bixa orellana tree), whose seed coats provide an important pigment, annatto or arnatto, still used today as a natural food dye (for example in Red Leicester and Cheshire cheeses). Achiote was also used ‘to provide sustenance’.

Pic 6: Trunk of the Castilla elastica (rubber tree), showing scar where a branch has been shed
Pic 6: Trunk of the Castilla elastica (rubber tree), showing scar where a branch has been shed (Click on image to enlarge)

We have yet to mention something of chocolate’s medicinal use in pre-Hispanic Mesoamerica. This would require an entire article on its own, but suffice to give one example here, quoting Louis Grivetti (whose source is Sahagún): ‘Chocolate (unmixed with other products; very bitter) was drunk by the Mexica/Aztecs to treat stomach and intestinal complaints; when combined with liquid extruded from the bark of the silk cotton tree (Castilla elastica [the source of rubber]), this beverage was used by traditional healers to cure infections.’ Note that the only purpose of consuming ‘neat’ chocolate was as a medicine, reflecting its original ancient use (in South America) - a practice that resonates in many traditional societies in the belief that ‘the more bitter the taste, the stronger the medicine.’

Pic 7: Detail from the ‘Princeton Vase’, showing a palace servant woman pouring chocolate from one vessel to another - ‘the earliest depiction of the froth-producing process’. Kerr K0511
Pic 7: Detail from the ‘Princeton Vase’, showing a palace servant woman pouring chocolate from one vessel to another - ‘the earliest depiction of the froth-producing process’. Kerr K0511 (Click on image to enlarge)

The range of native American ingredients added to cacao before the arrival of Europeans is surprisingly extensive: Grivetti lists 22 (most of which are the ground leaves of different flowers and seeds, but he also mentions one or two fruits, nuts and [chilli] peppers), plus two sweeteners (bee honey and the syrup of the maguey cactus). We have every reason to believe that the ancient Maya prepared an equally wide variety of chocolate drinks; though less well documented, we have evidence from Maya ceramic vases decorated with recently deciphered ‘recipe’ glyphs, such as ‘honey cacao’, ‘chilli cacao’, ‘fruity cacao’, ‘foamy cacao’, etc.
This last reference is central to the ritual of Mesoamerican chocolate consumption. By pouring chocolate - from a considerable height - from one vessel to another (and later by using a wooden whisk known by its Spanish name molinillo) the cocoa butter rises to the surface and a froth is obtained. Not only do you get the best taste from the bubbles bursting in the mouth, but you enter into an important performance...

Pic 8: Mixtec ruler 8-Deer (‘Jaguar Claw’) receives a jug of foaming chocolate from the hands of his wife 13-Snake (‘Flower Snake’), Codex Zouche-Nuttall pl. 26
Pic 8: Mixtec ruler 8-Deer (‘Jaguar Claw’) receives a jug of foaming chocolate from the hands of his wife 13-Snake (‘Flower Snake’), Codex Zouche-Nuttall pl. 26 (Click on image to enlarge)

This act of frothing the chocolate HAD to be undertaken literally at the last minute - at the time of serving the drink, which itself was always at the END of the meal. This increased both the visual impact of the whole ritual and the value of the drink to your guests, who you wanted to impress. This was, after all, anything but an every-day beverage: it was only served on special occasions - births, feasts, inaugurations, healings, wedding ceremonies and the cementing of marriage alliances, funerary rituals (which sometimes involved the mixing of human blood into the drink)... Not surprisingly, special vessels were employed to present it in. Whilst your thick chocolate-maize gruel would be drunk from a simple gourd, elite chocolate demanded the use of beautiful painted ceramic jugs and cups, kept specially for the occasion.

Pic 9: Preparing a traditional Mexican chocolate drink today: note the use of whisk, and heat!
Pic 9: Preparing a traditional Mexican chocolate drink today: note the use of whisk, and heat! (Click on image to enlarge)

Final note. Did they drink chocolate hot or cold? Surprisingly, the Aztecs preferred it cold, whilst the Maya preferred it hot! This is a gross over-simplification, but there clearly were cultural differences. Of course there would have been variations according to context: as Coe & Coe explain: ‘Although we do not know at what temperature the Classic [Maya] elite preferred their chocolate, given their culinary sophistication it is very likely that some drinks were cold, some were hot, and some were in between (the late pre-Conquest and Colonial Yucatec Maya favoured hot chocolate, it seems)’. And even if the Mexica DRANK it cold, heat must have been involved in its preparation - as Paul Young demonstrated in his kitchen, cacao paste in a jug of cold water just sits there, it doesn’t mix; as we all learn in school, solids dissolve faster and more effectively in hot liquids...

Pic 10: Different coloured cacao pods, Choco-Story, Bruges
Pic 10: Different coloured cacao pods, Choco-Story, Bruges (Click on image to enlarge)

(Recommended) sources:-
The True History of Chocolate by Sophie D. Coe & Michael D. Coe, Thames & Hudson, London, 1996
• ‘From Bean to Beverage: Historical Chocolate Recipes’ by Louis Evan Grivetti, in Chocolate: History, Culture and Heritage, edited by Louis Evan Grivetti & Howard-Yana Shapiro, John Wiley & Sons, New Jersey, 2009
• ‘Brewing Distinction: The Development of Cacao Beverages in Formative Mesoamerica’ by John S. Henderson and Rosemary A. Joyce, in Chocolate in Mesoamerica: A Cultural History of Cacao edited by Cameron L. McNeil, University Press of Florida, 2006
Flora: The Aztec Herbal by Martin Clayton, Luigi Guerrini and Alejandro de Ávila, The Royal Collection/Harvey Miller Publishers, 2009
The Badianus Manuscript: An Aztec Herbal of 1552 intro/trans by Emily Walcott Emmart, The John Hopkins Press, Baltimore, 1940.

Picture sources:-
• Main pic, and pix 1, 3, 9 & 10: photos by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Pic 2: Engraving scanned from Cocoa and Chocolate: Their History From Plantation to Consumer by A. W. Knapp, Chapman and Hall, London, 1920
• Pix 4 & 5: Images scanned from The Badianus Manuscript (see above)
• Pic 6: Photo from Wikipedia (Castilla Elastica)
• Pic 7: Photo by, courtesy of and © Justin Kerr, from the Mayavase Database (www.mayavase.com)
• Pic 8: Image scanned from our own copy of the ADEVA facsimile edition of the Codex Zouche-Nuttall, Graz, Austria, 1987.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on May 20th 2019

emoticon Q. What would you call the noise of loads of cacao pods being bundled onto a truck?
A. A cacaophony.

Feedback button