The History of Mexican Chocolate Intermingling
By Carlos Vargas
Legend has it that the god Quetzalcóatl gave the Aztecs the cacao tree. Ambrosia or nourishment of the gods as its scientific name Theobroma Cacao indicates. Furthermore, cacao is where chocolate comes from. Both words, chocolate and cacao, come originally from the Nahuatl language, Xocoatl, and Cacahoatl, respectively, and refer to the bitter and spicy mix that the Aztecs made with cacao beans and water. Moreover, cacao was not only delighted in by the Aztecs, but it was also a daily drink for other Mesoamerican societies such as the Olmecs and the Mayans. Christopher Columbus was said to be the first Spaniard to enjoy it, and it was the Spaniards who later took cacao to Europe where it started to metamorphose into what we know it now, mixed with milk and sugar, and almost always leaving aside the zesty spices with which it was accompanied in the New World. Now it is more common to recognize this delicacy as a solid, shaped like a bar, with different degrees of sweetness, but only the most conversant venture to taste it in its most bitter notes. Nevertheless, it did take a long time for the chocolate to take that shape.
Chocolate in Mexico and in many Latin American countries is still a hot drink and considered a stimulant, sometimes even passing coffee in popularity in the region. And that was one of the reasons that it arrived in Spain. Hernan Cortes is said to have taken cacao to King Carlos V, professing that a cup of this mash would give energy to a soldier the entire day. Then new imaginings began about the medicinal properties of chocolate, not in vain, but instead gained by virtue. At this point, chocolate conquered Europe, still in artisan preparation, perhaps in revenge for the conquest from where it had been taken, but without a doubt taking root in the palates of the Old World.
The first industrial chocolate factory is believed to have been founded in Switzerland in the second decade of the 19th century. Nevertheless, it was the Dutch who soon perfected the industrialized process of preparation. At this point, chocolate was not yet developed in solid form as it is popular today but was instead consumed as chocolate powder and cacao butter. A couple of decades later, the first chocolate bars were minted. It is not entirely clear if this advance comes from the English or the Italians, since both dispute authorship. What is clear is that for the second part of the century in question, there were already tablets and chocolate candy, which were gradually becoming popular. A couple of years later, chocolate arrived in the United States, and in 1894 Hershey democratized its consumption by starting to sell it in reasonably priced bars, and by the beginning of the 20th century, filled chocolates were also marketed. These latest achievements, unfortunately, led the chocolate industry to prioritize quantity over quality. And it is not until the end of the 20th century that new pioneering companies in the industry begin to retake the sybaritic culture of fine chocolate around the world.
Today, the two largest chocolate companies in the world are North American. Mars Inc., a private company founded in 1911 and owner of popular brands such as M&Ms and Snickers, and the multinational Mondelez International founded in 2012 that produces brands such as Oreo, Milka, Toblerone and Cadbury. Making it clear that chocolate has had a long passage to cross bitter water, even candied chocolate that “melts in your mouth, not in your hand.” In contrast, many companies produce chocolate, but most of them only small-scale, artisanal processes privileging quality to quantity and looking for a worldly market usually willing to experience the new, or paradoxically seeking the melancholic trail of the classic.
Back in Mexico, there is a company that makes powdered and table chocolate in Guadalajara that seeks to preserve tradition. Founded in 1925, Chocolate Ibarra proudly stands as a 100% Mexican company competing for head-on with multinational brands such as Nestle, which acquired in 1990 its main competitor, Chocolate Abuelita. Ibarra has consolidated its commercial activity by offering a high-quality product, made with natural ingredients, and maintaining its brand recognition in the Mexican market and offering its product in gourmet stores around the world.
However, Mexico is no longer the core of cacao production, as it was in pre-Hispanic times, although cacao is still cultivated in indigenous communities in various states of the country, such as Chiapas, Guerrero and mainly Tabasco. Mexico only represents about three percent of world production. Cacao production currently comes primarily from Africa, mainly Ivory Coast, Ghana, Nigeria, and Cameroon, which together account for nearly seventy percent of world production. This has created new challenges, such as the exploitation of peasants and child labor. This has led to the creation of new measures necessary to balance the balance of power between small producers and industrialists, such as fair trade initiatives, to the creation of responsible companies such as Tony Chocolonely´s, founded in the Netherlands in 2005 that promotes the 100% slavery-free chocolate. Companies like Tony Chocolonely raise the bar of fair trade, promoting an industry free of exploitation, free of slavery and free of child labor, perhaps in the more obvious way possible, leading by example and eliminating intermediaries to buy cacao beans directly from small producers, providing them with a much better price for their production and empowering them to combat exploitation.
Chef José Ramón Castillo is undoubtedly one of the greatest promoters and exponents of contemporary Mexican chocolate, or as he defines it, “the evolutionary Mexican chocolate shop.” Since 2012, Josera, as his friends know him, has been recognized as one of the best chocolatiers in the world and has received numerous international awards, including medals from the International Chocolate Awards and recognitions from the Mexican government and UNESCO. In 2004 he founded the chocolate shop Que Bo! located in four of the most representative neighborhoods of Mexico City. This chocolatier offers visitors a multisensory tasting experience that captivates from appearance, with bright colors and unexpected tones, through scent s unmistakable s and seductive is of truffles and chocolates to reach intense flavors suggestive. Josera’s palette of flavors is extensive and unconventional, offering from everyday flavors for the most traditional, going through tastes of orange with worm salt, tamarind, or even flavors of gansito and mango boing (flavors challenging to describe for foreigners, but that are deeply rooted in many Mexicans’ taste). After that, some other Mexican chocolate shops have followed suit in different Mexican cities. Some of them sell their products under organic labels and are distributed in commercial chains around the world. Ki’Xocolatl in Yucatan claims to be one of the few chocolate factories in the world that works directly from the cacao bean. Founded in 2002 by Stephanie Verbrugge and Mathieu Bre, two Belgians based in the city of Merida, they sell fine artisan chocolate bars, as a tribute to Mayan culture and Mexican cacao. The company´s name is a combination of Mayan and Nahuatl that states “delicious chocolate.”
In a globalized world, the crossbreeding of chocolate is, without a doubt, a simile of the intermixing of Mexican people. Chocolate in Mexico is no longer taken as bitter as it was in the past, but it is still taken a bit spiced, now with a slight touch of cinnamon and cloves and in the world, it begins to interpret with unexplored flavors, such as chili, sea salt or countless flavors. It stopped being an aristocratic drink to become a pleasure for everyone. It is consumed in Mexican houses accompanied by churros, sweet bread, and other delicacies, but it is also consumed in many other places in incomparable ways. In Mexico, it is most popular when it is cold, and that is perhaps why it is to be taken as a complement to seasonal winter delights, especially around Christmas time, like the rosca of Three Kings Day or Day of the Dead bread. But it also tastes good outside in the summer in a gelato when the temperature rises. Also, in Mexico, it is usually thickened with corn meal and drunk with tamales and called champurrado. Nevertheless, in other places, it can be mixed with hazelnuts and other ingredients and spread on bread. Whether in Mexico or the world, it is genuinely traditional to drink or eat it accompanied by friends and family, in all its forms and with all its troupes. Chocolate comes from Mexico, but it also comes from the world.
Carlos Vargas is Professor of Finance and researcher at EGADE Business School, Tecnologico de Monterrey in Mexico, and Instructor Sustainable Finance and Investment at the Division of Continuing Education at Harvard University.