April 7, 2011

Oaxaca and Chocolate

Chocolate grinders

Chocolate originates from Mexico and traditional recipes can be found all over the country. However, there is one state that has gained an international reputation for producing 'the real thing'. Oaxaca, in south-western Mexico, is where the true chocolate aficionados come. For many, it is the chocolate capital of the world. It is hardly surprising that it prevades so much of their local culture, while creating many tourist attractions in the region.

Human beings first settled in Oaxaca 13,000 years ago. Archaelogical evidence, from this time, earned the state the distinction of being the earliest known agricultural area in the entire continent. Guilá Naquitz cave, near Mitla, has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site, on the strength of this. Just over 4,000 years ago, the tribes of Oaxaca started cultivating cacao trees, thus began their love affair with chocolate.

Though European style sweet chocolate is produced here, that is largely a sap for the tourists. Homegrown and perfected by millennia, traditional Oaxaca chocolate can seem quite bitter to the foreign palate. (So called 'Mexican chocolate' is usually that which comes from Oaxaca.) However, it is also heedy stuff. It's not simply a nice taste. It can cause a mild rushing sensation, that has been likened to how one feels after a passionate kiss with a loved one. It can also temporarily sharpen the mind, leading to clarity of thought. It's not coincidental that chocolate so often serves as a metaphor for the heat of romance.

Here the chocolate isn't normally made to be eaten in a block. It's an ingredient for mole or, even more commonly, it's to be turned into a hot drink. grinding chocolateTraditionally, the cacao beans are roasted over a slow flame, then their shells are snapped off. The naked beans are then ground into a sticky paste, known as chocolate liquor (not to be confused with anything alcoholic).

Now other things are added to taste. These can famously include almonds, but also sugar, cinnamon, chilies or a raft of spices. Really only the imagination inhibits the adventurous chocolatier at this stage.

The result is a block of strong tasting chocolate. Pieces of this are broken off and added to hot water or hot milk (which depends upon personal preference; those serving it, in cafes or restaurants, will ask, "¿Con agua o leche?" ("With water or milk?"), and there is no right or wrong answer). The fragments of chocolate melt in there to form a beverage. A variation is champurrado. This is a corn-based hot drink (called an atole), which has been flavored with chocolate. It is delicious.

These are often served with buñuelos - a light, fluffy pastry - which has traditions all of its own.

The bowls were smashed afterwards to bring good luck to the person eating from them. Remember that chocolate was historically believed to have been delivered to humans by the God, Quetzalcoátl, and it was consumed only by priests and the nobility. Chocolate was meant to be sacred and therefore nothing should sully the bowl in which chocolate has been served.

Chilies&ChocolateFor those who wish to have a go at cooking their own Mexican cuisine, then there are classes throughout the state.

One of the most popular is in the beautiful tourist resort of Huatulco. Chiles & Chocolate Cooking Classes, run by local brother and sister combo, Alfredo and Vero Patino, are a lot of fun. They have made it to number 11, in TripAdvisor's Top 25 attractions for the area.

For $65 USD per person, complete beginners can spend three hours learning how to create the most fabulous Mexican meals. The classes are relaxed, fun, informative, and hands on, so that everyone gets to feel the accomplishment afterwards. They are also given in English. (Alfredo Patino is Huatulco born and bred, but he did spend six years living in the USA and he does have a Canadian wife. His English is fluent.) The price includes lunch and drinks; while each student gets to take a recipe manual and a gift bag home with them.

Oaxaca is awash with stores and street vendors selling variations on their chocolate recipes. If you are a chocolate lover, then it is surely THE place in the world to visit.


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