What is Mexican Chocolate? 

By José López Ganem 

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Commemorative chocolate bar made in Los Angeles, California for the exhibition “Visualizing Language: Oaxaca in L.A.” (April 2018). Photo by Fine Cacao and Chocolate Institute

What Champagne is to sparkling wine or Ethiopia to coffee, Mexico is to chocolate—a food-beverage product branded for its uniqueness, origin and quality, resulting in voluminous sales at premium prices to a dedicated consumer base. Or so it goes for some branded products. While Champagne has enjoyed its privileged position within the European Union and Ethiopian coffee increasingly receives priority attention from policy makers and global businesses, Mexican cacao and chocolate have yet to claim the rewards of their origin branding. Who should claim the right to claim use of the Mexico/Mexican branding in cacao-derived products? A debate on Mexican chocolate must start by asking what Mexican chocolate really is.  

Today, mind-twisting claims are employed indiscriminately around the world in chocolate packaging, drawing on pre-Columbian stereotypes as much as current nationalist chauvinism from the Mexican imagination. A chocolate confection made in the shape of a Mayan hieroglyph takes on different meanings depending on its context of time and place: it might offer a promise of cultural “authenticity” at a Vancouver farmers market artisan stand serving a hipster crowd; it might be fancied as an exotic aphrodisiac on the shelf of a chocolaterie in Lyon, France’s culinary mecca; or it might serve as a radical symbol of indigenous patriotism in a chocolate atelier in Mexico City. 

But historical fact does not determine present-day accuracy. For example, a chocolate drink globally coded as a “real Aztec recipe” is expected to contain cinnamon, a flavor and spice only introduced to Mesoamerica through the Spanish conquest. On the other hand, verified pre-Columbian cacao beverage recipes often meet with distaste from people around the world who are unaccustomed to their flavors and textures. Keen observers of the chocolate industry today will have noted already the typical patterns in labeling and formulation for chocolate products coded as Mexican: the origin of the raw material cacao, the presence of cinnamon or chili as primary flavoring agents, the use of pre-Columbian inspired images or lyrical nonsense in packaging and marketing copy, the grainy and coarse texture of the chocolate product, and the utilization of rapid refining chocolate production techniques. All of these elements can be tailored by contemporary users to fit business interests or political agendas. However, the definition of what Mexican chocolate is—factually and legally—remains elusive.

The average Mexican will argue that Mexico is the origin country for both cacao and chocolate. Government-issued textbooks implant these beliefs as though they are facts beginning with elementary education. However, scientists have proven that the genetic origin of cacao is the Amazon Basin in South America. Moreover, historical archaeological research in recent decades has pinpointed with much greater detail the development of the recipe and the Pipil language term chocolate, both of which hail from the Izalcos region of El Salvador. When held up to the light of academic scrutiny, Mexico’s origin story doesn’t actually involve the local birth of cacao or chocolate, either in the botanical or cultural sense.

Leaving aside raw material and formulation, we can turn to manufacturing to understand what are believed to be key Mexican contributions to chocolate production history. The use of the metate, a slightly hollowed oblong stone in which grains or beans are ground, was employed widely by Pre-Columbian Mesoamericans and then Spanish colonizers, to grind cacao and chocolate into a thick paste that hardened into a rough textured disc of chocolate that can be used later to prepare a chocolate-based drink. Considering this style of production and the resulting mouthfeel and beverage compositions, Mexico must necessarily share the fame with other former Iberian or French colonies that came to produce chocolate using similar or identical processes. Consider, for example, the sister products of widely popularized Latin American chocolate de mesa, Haitian chokola peyi, or Filipino tablea

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Chocolate beverage made by La Rifa Chocolate in Mexico City with ​lavado (washed) cacao (November 2019). Photo courtesy of Fine Cacao and Chocolate Institute

Beyond this, Mexico is overdue for a debate with the European Union about the rights of Italy to its Cioccolato di Módica Geographical Typical Identification (IGT, in Italian), to claim ownership for a type of coarse chocolate produced with a metate in Sicily, where local businesses first received cacao and the New World tool in the 16th century. Curiously, Spanish Catalonians in Barcelona argue that they received their first cacao and metates earlier, and that their artisans are therefore more worthy of a European designation for their gritty chocolate. As Brussels deliberates, these Modica- and Barcelona-produced chocolate products often take pride of place in upscale supermarkets in urban Mexico. 

We find yet another fascinating example of Mexican chocolate’s branding abroad in the popularity of the New England-based company Taza Chocolate. Focused around mechanized stone mills similar to those found in Oaxaca City for producing ground, coarse chocolate, Taza offers an entire line of rough-textured chocolate that bears the insignia “Chocolate Mexicano.” Taza’s operation has never used any raw ingredients—including cacao—sourced from Mexico. However, Taza Chocolate discs remain one of the top-quality Mexican-style chocolate products available for U.S. consumers, with a devoted following among majority white natural food enthusiasts, but not necessarily among Latinos with heritage appreciation for the chocolate style. Clearly, the Mexican approach to chocolate inspires widely for foreign capture of value.

In defense of Mexico’s cultural claims to its chocolate past, it is important to stress first that cacao held a primordial among the Pre-Columbian civilizations that occupied today’s Mexican territory: the Aztecs, Mayans, and earlier Olmecs, imbued the crop with great sociocultural significance. Second, the port enclaves of Vera Cruz (now Veracruz) and Acapulco were early launching posts for cacao to make its way across the South China Sea, to the Caribbean colonies, and even to the Mediterranean. Third, Spanish institutions, such as the Catholic Church, prioritized work with chocolate, and helped to disseminate chocolate traditions still celebrated in today’s Oaxaca, Puebla, Merida and Mexico City, all metropoles with reputations as cultural melting pots. 

The year 2020 marks the 500th anniversary of the fateful meeting between Emperor Moctezuma and conquistador Hernán Cortés, in which, allegedly,  the Aztec cacao-based drink Xocolatl was presented to the Spaniards, foreshadowing the expansive global consumption patterns of chocolate that were yet to come. Mexico’s role in chocolate history is perhaps most relevant for our contemporary purposes, for the extraordinary coincidence of having been perhaps the first the place where the European foreigner encountered cacao’s indigenous growth, harvest and consumption for the first time. 

As the cacao sector battled against these challenges, the chocolate palate of the Mexican nation was in the making. A syncretism between the pre-Hispanic ingredients and flavor profile— vanilla, chili, annatto seed, corn, beans—and the Old World imports—cane sugar, cinnamon, clove, dairy farming—took place in both elite and common households as well as in monasteries and missions throughout the territory. The evolution of the chocolate de meza or chocolate de taza developed in the same areas of Mesoamerica where cacao was consumed prior to colonization. In New Spain and Nueva Granada (today Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela) the taste for chocolate drinks reached all socioeconomic classes: from the thick, rich, milk-based chocolate drinks preferred in Euro-descended households to the water-based, refresh regional drinks pozol, tejate and cacahuotole, consumed by the working classes. 

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Dr. Kiyotaka Sato, from University of Hiroshima, shows his ​Chocolat Mill​, ​inspired by chocolate mills in the city of Oaxaca, Mexico (August 2018). Photo courtesy of Fine Cacao and Chocolate Institute

Mexicans take pride in the fact that European queens and kings alike fell for the new crop and its derivates. Yet, this celebrated history is dangerously incomplete at best. After the Moctezuma-Cortes encounter, cacao remained rare (many might even argue it was a well-guarded secret) throughout 16th century Spain. Cacao likely traveled from the Iberian Peninsula deeper into Europe through the arranged marriage between Anne of Austria and Louis XIII of France in 1615. Despite Anne’s status as the daughter of the Spanish monarch, relationships between both kingdoms remained belligerent well into mid-century, and commerce between the two was frequently prohibited or interrupted. Anne nevertheless continued to enjoy chocolate  and popularize chocolate consumption with other friendly European monarchs. Concurrently, the labor engine of production, chattel slavery, grew exponentially in the Caribbean for sugar agriculture. In the French colony of Saint-Domingue (today, the Republic of Haiti), Anne’s son, Louis XIV, went on to allow extreme violent control measures against enslaved Africans and Afro Haitians. Meanwhile, the cacao that they were forced to grow sailed towards North America and Europe as a commercial good for the first time outside of Mesoamerica. Thus, any celebration of the royal appetite for cacao must also acknowledge the historic, systematic, profit-driven slaughter of human beings just hundred nautical miles of the peninsula of Yucatan. 

By the 17th century, chocolate was scrutinized by Spanish historian  Antonio de León Pinelo  in his essay “Moral Question: whether chocolate breaks ecclesiastical fast” and the prominent New England jurist Samuel Sewall was waiting “upon the Lieutenant Governor at Dorchester, and there met with Mr. Torry, breakfast together on Venison and Chokolatte; I said Massachusetts and Mexico met at his Honor’s table.” 

The taste for Mexican chocolate had gone global. As Mexico consolidated its independence from Spain, elites and new Americas-born administrators leaned toward another import of the European business establishment: coffee. The consumption of chocolate continued to feature in the diurnal diet as a symbol of energy and taste, but the consumption increased only among the working class in a variety of ways, from the syncretic chocolate de taza to other regional preparations, meaning a decrease in the overall quality of raw components of chocolate, where washed—instead of fermented—cacao was preferred due to its comparative ease of preparation. This washed cacao shaped local palates with a legacy that stretches to today, becoming a standard in some regional cuisines. A paradox of Mexico’s legacy of cacao and chocolate consumption is that washed cacao and chocolate sometimes receive a higher price over fermented cacao and chocolate, a practice that confounds international specialty markets that insist on fermentation for full flavor development of the raw material. 

Historian William Gervase Clarence-Smith has shown that cacao production in Mexico never reached international prominence following the Spanish conquest. Chocolate’s primary raw materials, cacao and sugar, were imported into Europe from colonial Caribbean and South American enclaves; continental North American cacao was largely absent from these supply chain pathways. Ten years before Mexican independence, Mexican cacao exports appeared to be growing for the first time in three centuries of Spanish control. The War of Independence, however, eliminated virtually all business relationships with Europe. These facts should not, perhaps, be surprising. Spanish occupation of Mexico was accompanied by devastating introduction of disease that reduced the population of indigenous cacao-producing communities dramatically. Combined with land capture and economic exploitation, southern Mexican and northern Guatemalan indigenous producers were more likely to be resisting colonial rule than submitting to it by exporting their cacao. Added to this, residents of New Spain became prolific consumers of chocolate themselves, meaning that much of the cacao available stayed within the same territory. After independence, Mexico’s inherited financial struggles, the loss of territory in the north and south, its internal struggle to unite an enormously diverse population and the increase in cacao plant diseases, caused significant neglect of the cacao-producing sector. 

Cacao production regained momentum in the beginning of the 20th century under the hacienda system, sanctioned by President Porfirio Díaz, whereby wealth land-owning caciques or hacenderos controlled significant extensions of land and the impoverished populations that lived within or nearby. One of the crops that they planted and controlled was cacao. This was not a system accepted peacefully. In fact, in the years leading to the Mexican War of Revolution (1910-1920), cacao exports were in the single digits of tons sent abroad. Political struggle occurred throughout the country, but in the southern cacao-producing states, populists rallied around the figure of Emiliano Zapata under the banner “la tierra es de quien la trabaja” (“the land belongs to the one that works it,” in English). These peasants’ rights-based revolts crippled agricultural production, taking cacao with it. 

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A chocolate bar displayed at the Spanish Cacao Sampaka​C ​ T​ okyo Boutique, displaying the origin of the cacao beans - Soconusco, State of Chiapas, Mexico - and the national emblem of the Kingdom of Spain (August 2018). Photo courtesy of Fine Cacao and Chocolate Institute

Mexico’s cacao production confronted a new set of challenges in the second half of the last century, garnished by a period of bonanza in 1940-50 due to investment in the sector and the industrial mechanization of national chocolate manufacture. The primary regions where cacao grows for commercial use shared an uncomfortable neighbor: oil production. Land requisitions, water and air pollution, and price incentives to switch to more profitable crops precipitated the further fall of Mexican cacao production. In the 1990s, cacao production was already in serious peril and the chocolate demand of Mexico wasn’t met by the cacao supply coming from the States of Chiapas, Tabasco, and Veracruz. 

As president Carlos Salinas de Gortari signed the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), cacao production was severely impacted by the trend to modernize economic processes and step away from the fields into schools and offices. In the early 2000s, the remaining cacao plantations were hard hit by cacao plant disease introduced from Central America. In 2018, an industrial estimate indicates that national production of cacao neared 20,000 metric tons, while during the same period, the national chocolate industry requisitioned above 120,000 metric tons for its production, making Mexico a net importer of cacao, with less than a fifth of its own production exported to international markets.  

The information above hints at what Mexican chocolate is. However, consensus on this would be difficult to achieve in the best of conditions, not to mention the immensity of the task to shape a body to enforce such agreement. Efforts exist on both sides to bring sense to the orphan terminology. In cacao, there’s a dormant yet existent Denomination of Origin for Cacao Grijalva, focused on exports of premium quality cacao from the leading producing State of Tabasco. Additionally, a recent initiative of the federal government, Sembrando Vidas (Planting Lives, in English), seeks to plant 250,000 hectares with cacao plants to support farmers in the historically impoverished south, as well as small private businesses in the shape of Estates and cooperatives that routinely express their hope to one day see Mexico rise into the top ten cacao producing countries. 

On the chocolate side, a number of small businesses create bean-to-bar chocolate products made with Mexican cacao, aimed at the consumer bases of foreign visitors, foodies, and patriot. But grocery chocolate presence is largely dominated by commercial chocolate brands with either Mexican or foreign multinational ownership. More and more, pastry and cultural operations—such as chocolate museums and experiences—try to highlight the unifying factor above all: the culture of national consumption, the role played in the historical development of such consumption, the literature and storytelling value highly esteemed by marketing departments at home and abroad. 

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A chocolate bar wapping advertise by the Sicily-based CIOMOD​C ​, leading brand of Cioccolato di Modica, made with Colombian cacao (*no date*). Photo by CIOMOD Sicily

There is no denying that Mexican chocolate is an asset to Mexico: it employs a large number of people in various capacities, especially in the commercial sector, and it is ubiquitously consumed by the Mexican population. Internationally, the symbolic quality of Mexican chocolate inspires product portfolios, it holds a clear marketing value for consumers, and it remains a contentious topic among industry professionals. Yet studying its history leads to more questions than certainties: Who should or could claim the value of chocolate products labeled “Mexican” (or “Aztec” or “Mayan”)? How can cacao producers and Mexicans themselves capture some of the value behind such labels? Is it in the best interests of agricultural producers to grow cacao in Mexico, or is national sentiment toward cacao production clouding our vision? Does buying cacao from established markets in South America to produce chocolate in Mexico undermine the Mexican-ness of that chocolate? Or does it enhance regional economic integration? Should chocolate manufactured outside of Mexico without Mexican raw materials claim to be Mexican chocolate? Is it possible to define a clear style of Mexican chocolate production? From whom should Mexican chocolate claim its descent: Indigenous producers of yesteryear and today? Moctezuma? Charles V? The Catholic Church? The artisans of Modica? The Abuelita in commercial packaging? All of the above? And if consumers around the world celebrate sophisticatedly with French Champagne and wake up stylishly with Ethiopian coffee, then what function does Mexican chocolate hold for them? The answers to these questions are a battleground between the marketers and the Mexican nation. 

 

José López Ganem is a research fellow at the Fine Cacao and Chocolate Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and a research assistant to Carla D. Martin at Harvard University.