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Drinking Chocolate: How this Indigenous Beverage Became a Widespread Obsession

When the Spanish began colonizing the area that is now California, they launched ships up the coast with only the most essential supplies including flour, ammunition, blankets, shoes and their favorite beverage: drinking chocolate. Year after year, the Franciscan fathers of the growing missions sent back their lists of necessities, and drinking chocolate was always included, thousands of pounds of it. Coffee was not even a close second.

Judging by the sheer quantities and varieties of use, drinking chocolate might be the most significant beverage of mission-era California.

Chocolate from ChocoVivo | Courtesy of ChocoVivo
Chocolate from ChocoVivo | Courtesy of ChocoVivo

These details are laid out in “Chocolate: History, Culture, and Heritage” by Dr. Louis Grivetti, Professor Emeritus in the Department of Nutrition at UC Davis and Howard-Yana Shapiro, Director of Plant Science. Speaking from his home, Grivetti enthusiastically listed dozens of examples of chocolate as medicine for sailors, reward for soldiers, energy drink for settlers and even to seal a 1776 proposal by a Spanish soldier, who begged chocolate off his friends to gift a settler woman that caught his eye during the long walk to what is now San Diego.

Grivetti and Shapiro’s research maps the evolution of chocolate in California alongside the evolution of California itself. In what was then called Alta California, the first Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcalá (now San Diego) was established on July 16, 1769. On June 3, 1770 the Mission San Carlos Borromeo del Carmelo (now Monterey) became the second. Both were founded by Father Junípero Serra (his canonization in 2015 was disputed by Native Americans), who wrote about the need for cold weather supplies and noted “we also need some chocolate, that Thanks God, we were not lacking up to now.“

Father Serra is identified as an early chocolate connoisseur, who adopted the rules of San Fernando College, Mexico City during his stay there in 1750-52, taking them along to the missions as he went. These included instructions on how to administer a mission’s chocolate shop, as well as strict admonition to avoid conversations with women and to under no circumstances give women chocolate. Thankfully, Californians long have ignored this message, starting with that Spanish soldier and settler woman in 1776.

The military were equally hooked. One calculation in “Chocolate: History, Culture, and Heritage” tracks the consumption of Santa Barbara Presidio from 1779 to 1810, for a total of 33,800 lbs. of chocolate, and that’s not counting the requests for whole cacao beans. By the late 1790s the requests evolve with Spaniards ordering chocolate by origin including Caracas, Venezuela and Tabasco, Mexico. One pictures men with well-groomed mustaches and colorful socks debating the origins of their favorite hot drink...well, some things don’t change in 200 years.

Drinking chocolate was made with water, but setting up the kitchen for a mission’s chocolate consumption required a list fit for Williams Sonoma. Among the orders were heavy pots for cooking, specialized drinking gourds (jícaras), hand mills for frothing (molinillos), volcanic stone slabs for grinding cacao (metates), copper drinking mugs, and trunks with locks for keeping the hundreds of pounds of superior chocolate, ordinary chocolate, cacao beans and sugars.

Are Southern Californians still drinking chocolate? Unequivocally, yes.

ChocoVivo

One Los Angeles entrepreneur, Patricia Tsai, went on her own trek through Mexico in search of chocolate, eventually finding her source in the cacao fields of Tabasco, Mexico, the very same region the early Spaniards had preferred.

Tsai runs ChocoVivo in Culver City, where drinking chocolate is the primary focus among other chocolate products including bars, bitters, and body oils. Tsai’s chocolate revelation came during a trip to Oaxaca in southern Mexico, where she saw drinking chocolate prepared on stone grinders. While bean-to-bar was trendy for chocolate bars, she saw an opportunity to apply the same standards to drinking chocolate. “We’re so close to Mexico, and I thought why is nobody back home enjoying chocolate with the integrity that it was enjoyed with hundreds of years ago?” she asked. With this in mind, she set out to study chocolate-making in the early 2000s, with nearly disastrous results.

Patricia Tsai looking at fresh cacao beans ready to be fermented | Courtesy of ChocoVivo
Patricia Tsai looking at fresh cacao beans ready to be fermented | Courtesy of ChocoVivo

In Oaxaca, a Spanish-speaking friend helped negotiate a deal to learn with a local family, but came back saying, “Patricia, I heard from them and I’m really sorry, they counter offered at 1 million USD.” In Mexico City, Tsai found a woman who claimed to have a seven-day Mexican chocolate tour, but turned out to be intent on converting her to European-style chocolate. During this tour, while nearly at the point of giving up, Tsai was briefly introduced to Vicente Gutierrez, the owner of a cacao plantation in Tabasco. Gutierrez and Tsai were only able to chat for a moment before the tour leader returned and hustled Gutierrez away, but Tsai quietly got his email address from one of his employees. “I remember coming back to the States exhausted, thinking I went to Wharton and here I am trying to chase this chocolate dream. I only had this email, so I sent it wondering if he was even going to get it, if he even had a computer.” She got a response back immediately from Gutierrez, asking in English if she would like to instant message. Via chat, she told him her plan to create a chocolate drinking shop in Los Angeles, and he invited her back to learn about the chocolate growing process and discuss how to import to the US. “Two months later I went back and that’s when Pandora’s box opened,” said Tsai.

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The resulting business unites the old with the new. Gutierrez’s plantation has been in his family since 1917, but their records show it operating as early as 1893. For Tsai, the direct relationship with her grower allows her to control her supply chain and use a single source for beans. But, like the early missions, she needed all the tools to go with her chocolate. Tsai wanted the grinders she’d seen in Mexico made with two stones, one stationary and one spinning, with the cacao passing between the two. Gutierrez sent a stone grinder from Mexico, but it wouldn’t pass L.A. health code. Tsai also wondered how she would sharpen the stones after use. Gutierrez wrote from Tabasco: Go to Home Depot?

Drinking chocolate at ChocoVivo | Courtesy of ChocoVivo
Drinking chocolate at ChocoVivo | Courtesy of ChocoVivo

Tsai realized that the stone mills used for corn could be modified, and went on a search across the Latino communities of east L.A.. Eventually, she came across a stone mill maker, but when she told him what she wanted, “he looked at me like ‘WHAT?’ I said it’s the same kind of machine, I’ll just give you the cacao and we’ll work on the etchings.” After two months of trial and error, they had the right design for her cacao, and in 2009 ChocoVivo was launched.

Tsai imagined selling her drinking chocolate to restaurants, and proceeded to book meetings where she would take samples and even lug in the stone mill. Again and again, she encountered skepticism about drinking chocolate and a refusal to believe her chocolate from Mexico could be of pure quality, despite her direct relationship to the grower. Like so many small businesses, she realized she needed to go straight to her customers, to introduce them to the product herself. Starting at a farmer’s market, she slowly educated people and came to understand their needs, eventually growing to eight markets. ChocoVivo, the store, opened July 2013.

In the shop, drinking chocolate can be made hot with water like the original Mayans and later Spaniards, mixed with housemade nut milks, or frozen, poured over ice cream, or even in bars. Chocolate strengths are 100 percent, 85 percent, 75 percent, and a Mayan traditional chocolate with cinnamon and chiles.

She’s also partnered with AirBnB, so guests staying in L.A. can take chocolate making workshops. Tsai describes this as the most intense educational experience she offers because it includes examining a cacao pod, discussing how fire is critical for roasting beans to extract flavor, working with raw cacao nibs, and finally utilizing the stone grinder.

Guelaguetza

At Guelaguetza, the James Beard award winning restaurant started by Fernando López and Maria Monterrubio more than 20 years ago, chocolate is still a family affair. Today, the founders have returned to their native Oaxaca, where they frequently visit the growers and manufacturers who supply ingredients to L.A.. Their children Paulina, Bricia, Fernando and Elizabeth López now run the restaurant, returning to Oaxaca frequently to visit their parents and select chocolate, tortillas for tlayudas, and other ingredients. Bricia López keeps a blog of her Oaxacan trips with suggestions for visitors. The restaurant is named after the major Oaxacan festival of dancing, music, and food which happens each July.

Fernando López spoke to the importance of chocolate for them. “Chocolate is such a culturally close thing to us, for mornings and at night... there really is no Oaxacan restaurant without chocolate.” The family uses several blends of cacao, almonds, sugar and cinnamon, and works personally with a small family operation in Zaachila, Oaxaca to produce a type of chocolate that is available in the Guelaguetza store.

López described the three ways drinking chocolate is prepared in the restaurant. Chocolate de agua (with water) is the strongest and most traditional style that would be served in small villages where milk is more expensive. In the chocolate de leche (with milk) the milk softens the flavors, while the chocolate de atole is prepared with corn masa. All the drinks are served hot with house-made pan de yema (egg yolk bread). The chocolate is also used in their homemade black mole, but he points out that “it’s really not for taste, just sweetness, because a good mole is a thing in itself, you can’t taste the ingredients.”

Mole samples at Guelaguetza | Courtesy of Guelaguetza
Mole samples at Guelaguetza | Courtesy of Guelaguetza

Finally, López described a traditional Oaxacan wedding tradition with chocolate: “When people are getting married you’ll make chocolate for your in-laws, and they’ll judge you by the amount of foam.” Guelaguetza’s chocolate is sold in the store along with molinillos for frothing (there’s an online store for those who can’t get to Koreatown).

Cacao Mexicatessen

In Eagle Rock, Cacao Mexicatessen is a family business run by Andrew and Christy Lujan, brother and sister, who opened the Mexican food deli in 2008. Christy Lujan described how they came up with the name while thinking of how “cacao was money, the food of the gods. Andrew envisioned the deli as a gift, something special. When we first got into Cacao our vision was, what were they eating in those times in Mesoamerica?” The resulting menu included a lot of game meats such as turkey, wild boar, and venison and evolved from there. Of course, drinking chocolate is a constant on the menu.

Drinking chocolate at Cacao Mexicatessen | Courtesy of Cacao Mexicatessen
Drinking chocolate at Cacao Mexicatessen | Courtesy of Cacao Mexicatessen

Cacao uses La Soledad brand chocolate from Oaxaca, and makes a simple syrup with it to use in lattes. The chocolate drinks change frequently and are served hot or iced, garnished with almonds and cinnamon powder. One version is spiced with powdered chile de árbol to bring out the smoky cacao flavor.

Lujan says many people order the chocolate for breakfast and nothing else, though it’s popular early mornings, late at night, and during brunch. It has a strong flavor, she says, so “it’s a standalone product. It’s filling, a meal on its own.” The early missionaries would have agreed.

Top Image: Drinking chocolate and pan dulce at Guelaguetza | Courtesy of Guelaguetza

 

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