Aztec Warrior Chocolate, Kakawa Chocolate House, Santa Fe
It’s amazing what the palate can forget. The Aztecs and Mayans drank their chocolate rich and frothy; mixed with chile, flowers and achiote to give it a distinct red hue. It resembled nothing of the solid uniform rectangles sold today. Mesoamerican cacao was an elixir, a status symbol, a reward for warriors and a currency used throughout the region. Findings in modern-day Honduras suggest these drinks were already being made by 1000 B.C.
Europeans hated chocolate when they first encountered it. According to historian Marcy Norton*, an early Italian traveler declared chocolate “fit only for pigs.”
But the Spanish recognized chocolate’s importance in Mesoamerican society, and they saw reason enough to ship a bunch of it home. Slowly, the drink spread. And with time, Europeans amended their recipes, adding cinnamon, black pepper, anise and sesame in efforts to replicate the flavors of Mesoamerican flowers. “By the end of the eighteenth century, all that remained of the spice complex was cinnamon and sugar,” Norton writes. People eventually forgot the original concoction.
But a little cafe on Santa Fe’s Paseo de Peralta remembers very well. The Kakawa Chocolate House serves a whole menu of ancient-style Mesoamerican elixirs; as well as modern and old-fashioned European mixes, which are sweeter and gentler than their counterparts.
Personally, I’ll take my chocolate with a little more zest. Most of the Mesoamerican varieties contain chile, and most are sweetened with honey or agave. But the Aztec Warrior, pictured above, stands all on its own. It’s a potent mix of herbs, flowers, nuts, spices, chile, vanilla—and nothing sweet at all. It tastes like molé in a mug; I have visions of slathering it on pork and grilling it over fire.
Not all the chocolates are so wonderfully rugged. The rose almond is floral and fragrant, like drinking in a summer garden. But it still has the kick of chile.
On a side note, this whole business of old-time chocolate came up a few months ago when Jerry took an archaeological tour of Chaco, the center of Four Corners civilization 1,000 years ago (I’m envious. I missed that trip.). There, archaeologists have unearthed cylindrical chocolate jars from Pueblo Bonito that suggest Chacoans were drinking chocolate and trading with people much farther south. These findings mark the earliest-known presence of chocolate north of the Mexican border.
I’m all for local tradition. I could use a cup of that chocolate right now.
*If you’re interested in the history of chocolate, I highly recommend downloading the full text of Norton’s article in the OAH Magazine of History. It’s available for free with university library access. I’m also eager to read her book.
Pueblo Bonito, Chaco Canyon
Kin Kletso, Chaco Canyon
Nuevo Alto, Chaco Canyon