Chocolate is one more of Mesoamerica’s many gifts to the world and, “chocolatl” or chocolate is another of the many Nahuatl words to enter our modern vocabulary. Cacao, the bean from which chocolate comes means “food of the gods.” Who can argue with that?
Chocolate probably originated in the Amazon region but Spaniards first encountered it in Mesoamerica. The Mesoamericans cultivated a cacao species different from that of the Amazon; it appears there was little to no cross fertilization of the two species.
The cacao bean (in English frequently referred to as cocoa) gave lie to the adage "money doesn’t grow on trees." For millennia, in this part of the world, it did. The cacao bean was an accepted unit of currency throughout Mesoamerica. Even purchasers with no cacao beans in hand used prices set in beans to guide their barter. A buyer purchasing a length of cotton cloth know how many cacao beans the blanket was worth and how many his bags of corn were worth, thereby knowing whether to add or subtract corn in order to seal the deal.
Columbus, on his fourth voyage, encountered and seized a Maya merchant dugout canoe described as "being as long as a galley and eight feet wide, had a cabin amidships, and a crew of some two dozen men, plus its captain and . . . women and children. It carried a cargo of cacao, copper bells and axes, pottery, cotton clothing, and macanas (wooden swords set with obsidian blades)." Columbus' son Ferdinand wrote, "They seemed to hold these [cacao beans] at a great price; for when they were brought on board the ship together with their goods, I observed that when any of these almonds fell, they all stooped to pick it up, as if an eye had fallen [out of their head]."
Indeed they were valuable. A thousand cacao beans, the product of a single tree, could buy a slave at the Laguna de Terminos market.
Reference to cacao and chocolate is found in ancient Maya hieroglyphic writing. Vases, which seem designed to hold beverages, have been found with hieroglyphic text identifying the owner and its intended use as a cup from which to drink chocolate.
Throughout Mesoamerica cacao was considered sacred and used for medicinal and ritual purposes. Today it is known as an antioxidant with the ability to lower cholesterol and blood pressure as well as having mythic aphrodisiac properties. Cortez was sufficiently impressed and reported this property of chocolate to the Spanish court. The legend continues -- probably accountable for chocolate as a preferred gift for Valentine’s Day.
In prehispanic Mesoamerica, "xocolatl" (bitter beverage in Nahuatl) or perhaps "chokolatl" (hot beverage as a combination Maya and Nahuatl word) was the preferred drink of the upper classes. They were the only ones who could afford to drink their money. Frothy, hot, water-based chocolate was reportedly available all day long in Moctezuma's palace.
Though Mesoamerican money did grow on trees, it grew in climatically restricted areas; its use as a favored drink of the ruling classes kept it scarce. If there was an abundant harvest, supply and demand would kick in -- more people could afford to drink it and they would sip it right back to its former scarcity -- an inflation-proof currency.
The cacao tree is unusual in that its fruit can grow anywhere on the bark. It grows on the tree trunk, along the branches, or dangles from the end of a branch. Each pod, the size of a small papaya, of which there are about twenty per tree, contains thirty to sixty cacao beans in a mucilage-like substance. After harvesting pods, farmers must quickly break them open and dry the seeds, or they will rot. Today the seeds are dried on large cement terraces in front of houses. Overflow crops even dry on the shoulder of highways. If kept dry, seeds last for years.
Cacao trees grow in low, humid, tropical regions of Mesoamerica, especially along the coasts of southern Mexico and Central America. Cacao orchards are pleasing places in which to walk. The trees grow as undergrowth in the shade of taller trees that fix nitrogen into the soil. If you’d like to visit such a farm I suggest you combine it with a trip to the Comalcalco archeological site near Villahermosa, a cacao-producing area of Tabasco.
Today a brisk trade goes on between Tabasco where most of Mexico's cacao is grown and Oaxaca with the highest per-capita consumption of chocolate. Next time you're in the city of Oaxaca find a chocolate molino near the market. Choose your preferred combination of cinnamon, almonds, sugar, and cacao, have it put in the grinder and prepare for a grand treat. Purchase a "molinillo", lathed from a single piece of wood, in the market and use it to turn your chocolate into frothy hot chocolate. A chocolate molino is one of my favorite stops in Oaxaca.