Posted on September 09 2014
Oaxaca is the only place in the world that has such a strong and visible cacao consuming culture. You will see cacao being sold in all the outdoor markets called mercados, and there are several international companies based in Oaxaca that are dedicated to selling cacao and chocolate products - Mayordomo and La Soledad.
But let me be clear; even within Mexico, Oaxaca is not a major growing region and on a global scale Mexico is not a major growing country nor major producer of chocolate. So why does Oaxaca have a cacao obsession? Their roots in Mesoamerica and their indigenous diet.
Cacao drinks are plentiful and ubiquitous. To name a few: chocolate, chocolateAtole, tejate, atole de chocolate (champurrado), tascalate, and popo. There are many more but these are the most common that you can find anywhere in Oaxaca. I talk more about these drinks here.
In the image below is a basic drinking chocolate to the right, cacao, water, sugar. And to the left is a lesser know drink that is iced and 'massaged' until the cocoa butter has floated to the top.
When you walk into a mercado you have the option to buy:
- washed cacao (not fermented)
- fermented cacao
- toasted cacao
- balam (cousin to cacao)
- fermented balam
- cacao ground - plain
- cacao ground - with your choice of sugar, cinnamon or almonds
Even though they sell "fermented" cacao it is a different level of fermentation that would be used by high quality chocolate makers like Dandelion Chocolate or Dick Taylor Chocolate.
Cacao that is prepared for drinking, like most cacao that is processed in Mexico, doesn't really require good fermentation. In the image below, the beans in the center are washed and to the right they are fermented. There is a slight color difference.
Although Mexico is the birthplace of cacao consumption, it hasn't used all of it's resources to grow or become an important country in the world of cacao. Mexico consumes more cacao than it produces which creates two realities. 1. Most "Mexican" drinking chocolate mixes are made with imported cacao, some from Central America but mostly from Africa. 2. Mexican cacao growers don't strive to create a premium cacao that would interest high quality chocolate makers (for bars).
This also creates a challenge in neighboring Guatemala which shares a border with the state of Chiapas. Chocolate makers would like to secure cacao from Guatemala but fermentation and drying would need to change, change means investment. Guatemala can spend more time processing cacao for high quality chocolate makers or not process it at all and still sell at the same price they can sell to a coyote that would traffic it to Mexico. Because of the high demand in Mexico, Guatemalan growers will always have an easy market.
For many indigenous communities in Mexico and Central America, cacao is part of a daily diet. Children consume it with water as breakfast, others have it as a mid day meal or snack, and more importantly it is fixed food, for thousands of years, necessary for ceremonies like weddings, births, right of passage, and funerals.
When the Spanish wrote about the New World they noted how the natives sprang to save "almond like beans" that had fallen from the sacks. To this day each bean continues to be sacred. In the USA I learned how to crack beans using a machine that cracked thousands of beans per minute. When I was in Guatemala and Oaxaca, we peeled each bean one by one with our hands. At first I thought that was crazy and I showed them how to do it faster but now I understand that the amount of care and precision was part of the ritual. Sitting with the women of the community, peeling for hours, gave everyone time to sit and catch up. It was a time to relax, relish, enjoy and just be. In the USA we don't have time for that and we would view this as inefficient but as I grow older and shorter I have come to value the bonding moments that a fast paced life does not allow.
In Oaxaca I taught four classes: Chocolate Confections, Chocolate with a Metate, Chocolate & Mezcal Pairing, and Chocolate with a Metate. The first class was mostly for tourists visiting Oaxaca and I was able to play with Oaxaca ingredients like grasshoppers, chiles, rose petals and obleas (flour crackers). The other classes were for Oaxacan women and high school students.
The metate class was a real challenge because it is physically demanding. Sure, every woman that lives in rural Mexico can grind anything on the metate but most city folks cannot. We were able to teach this class at the El Sabor Zapoteco cooking school. Reyna Mendoza has a collection of metates from her aunts, sisters and mother.
The third class was the most challenging since I had to taste many mezcales to find the right combination to go with the chocolates. After a very thorough investigation on mezcal I have decided that I prefer mezcal to Tequila. My friend Alvin, who resides in Oaxaca and wrote a book about mezcal can be more useful than I on the topic. The class was held at La Olla Restaurant where Chef Pilar Cabrera runs a cooking school Casa de los Sabores. La Olla Restaurant was opened 19 years ago and what I most enjoy about Pilar and her knowledge of Oaxaca is the true authenticity. Not only was she born in Oaxaca but her grandmother and ancestors as well. She has deep knowledge of cooking techniques and ingredients that have been passed down to her by her family.
When you find yourself in Oaxaca make sure to taste anything that has cacao. You have the morning, noon, and nighttime cacao drinks. Some are hot, warm, or iced. And do not have preconceptions about what they should taste like, they are nothing like the American or European chocolate drinks. Some might not have sugar at all. Be open to new flavors.
You will not have this opportunity in any other state in Mexico and definitely not anywhere outside of Mexico. If you want to purchase some cacao to take back home, I suggest you go to one of the plentiful molinos like Mayordomo and buy a kilo of peeled, fermented, roasted cacao. They will grind it for you - it will be liquid when you get it but over a day it will harden like a rock. You can smuggle some cacao beans back to your country, just place in a bag that is labeled 'chocolate'. And never, never admit you have beans or seeds. Just say it's chocolate. No one at the airport knows where chocolate comes from or how it is made. But there is no real flavor/quality difference between you grinding the beans at home or having them ground in Oaxaca so just get it done in Oaxaca.
When you get home you can use this as a base to add any other flavors and make any drink. At the molino they will ask if you want cinnamon, almonds, sugar, etc., but I suggest so say no to all additions. You can add all of these things at home. No need to carry this extra weight with you and you have the freedom to create a different chocolate eat time you make the drink. There is no real measure; I generally like 20g of ground cacao to 1 cup of milk. But you may like less or more.
If you ground in Oaxaca you might now have a block of solid chocolate ... this is how to make it easier to work with: remelting Mexican Hot Chocolate.
You may be tempted to buy already made disks from the many women that sell them. This is ok too but you have less control of how much sugar or flavors they contain.
Oaxaca is not the place to find "European" drinking chocolates or chocolate bars; a recipe that is a mere 300 years old and processed over many hours with added cocoa butter, lecithin, vanilla, and sometimes milk powder. Oaxaca is a place to find cacao in daily use where you can be given the privilege to see ancient preparation techniques and to taste drinks that were consumed thousands of years ago.