Do you remember eating Twinkies as a kid? Remember how wonderful they were? How light and fluffy, sweet, creamy and delicious? But have you had a Twinkie lately? No? Seriously, you should check it out. They are absolutely repulsive-inedible. What was once pure ambrosia to my tiny taste buds now feels like chewing on a yellow bath sponge filled with straight Crisco. The recipe probably hasn't changed much, but my tastes have matured (thank God) since I was 10. Back then, I used to love drinking Swiss Miss. We'd buy a box of those little foil packets and my ***image1***sister and I would tear them open, pouring the pale brown powder into mugs, then picking out and eating all of the little freeze-dried marshmallows before adding water and putting the mugs in the microwave. But as the Twinkie is to vanilla sponge cake filled with pastry cream, so is Swiss Miss (with marshmallows!) to real drinking chocolate. There is simply no comparison.
It's unfortunate that hot chocolate is such a treasured product of Mesoamerica and yet they get virtually no credit for it. Ask 20 people, "Where is chocolate from?" and they'll probably name Switzerland, Hershey, Pa., and 18 other random places before stumbling on the right answer: Mexico.
Theobroma cacao, which translates literally as "food of the gods," is the scientific name for what we call the cacao tree. Now, the trees are cultivated on plantations in equatorial regions all over the world. But in 1502, on his fourth voyage to the Americas, Columbus still hadn't grasped the importance of cacao to the Aztecs, for whom it was the major form of currency.
Although the Aztecs usually get credit for inventing drinking chocolate, the Mayan civilization that preceded them decorated pots with symbols for cacao hundreds of years earlier. To the Mayans and the Aztecs, drinking chocolate was an important religious experience. "When I bite into a York Peppermint Patty," those Mayans might have said, "I feel touched by the hand of Quetzalcoatl." OK, that's a stretch. But the point is that although the product has changed, chocolate has always had a profound effect on us.
The chocolate worshipped by the ancient Mesoamericans was almost nothing like the Swiss Miss I loved in 1983. After being fermented, then dried, roasted and ground on a stone metate, their cacao beans were ground by hand with vanilla and sometimes chiles or other spices, then whipped into hot water. There was no sugar involved. Ponder that for a moment. No sugar. Without any sweetener, the drink was very bitter, and depending on the amount of chiles added, it would have been quite fiery.
In the 16th century, when the drink was formally presented to Prince Philip of Spain, he was not impressed. Most Europeans who tried it shared his view that chocolate was a bitter, unpleasant beverage that had only the advantage of being "fortifying," no doubt because of the caffeine content. But eventually the Spaniards figured out that if they added sugar to the blend it became a much, much tastier beverage. By the 18th century, chocolate shops had spread through Europe, and though still relatively expensive, it became immensely popular.
And so it was that chocolate came back to the Americas. In the 1700s, cacao beans began to be imported from the West Indies to Massachusetts, where they were refined into drinking chocolate at the Baker's chocolate factory. The sweetened version of the drink was also reimported to colonial Mexico. Today, Mexican hot chocolate remains distinctly different from the American version. Whereas we tend to use powders to create milky, bland drinks, Mexicans prize a deep, rich and flavorful brew.
Cinnamon, vanilla and almond are essential flavors in Mexican hot chocolate, and although store-bought brands (like Ibarra and Abuelita) use some artificial flavorings, better brands and homemade blends still use vanilla beans, whole almonds and freshly ground Mexican cinnamon. In Oaxaca, where the average person drinks more than 5 pounds of chocolate every year, chocolate mills still grind cacao beans and spices together to order. Proportions of cacao, sugar and spices are specified by the customer, then ground.
If you feel like getting a hearty workout and ruining your manicure, you can try making chocolate at home the traditional way. Just buy yourself a lava rock metate and mano, pick up some cacao nibs (I've seen them at Wild Oats and La Montañita), Mexican cinnamon (called canela-it is different), toasted almonds and get to grinding. You'll need to heat the metate, either by placing it over the hot coals of your open fire or, you know, with a can of Sterno. Or you could just go out and buy the stuff.
There are many places in town that serve a fine cup of drinking chocolate. Here are just a few:
Fuego at La Posada de Santa Fe
330 E. Palace Ave., 986-0000, www.laposada.rockresorts.com
A rich, creamy, chile-spiced hot chocolate is part of the $45 prix fixe Sunday brunch menu at Fuego in La Posada. Made with chocolate, jalapeño sauce and half-and-half, it comes with a side of those cinnamony Mexican doughnuts called churros.
121 Don Gaspar Ave., 983-9340
Here you can order a simple but delicious Mexican hot chocolate by the cup or as a part of a breakfast that includes a sweet corn and raisin tamale.
The Spanish Table
109 N. Guadalupe St., 986-0243
Try your hand at making Spanish-style drinking chocolate, which is also dark, thick and spicy. The Spanish Table stocks five or six different brands, ranging from about $4 to $6.
3005 St. Francis Drive, 888-292-BLUE (2583), www.blueberrysantafe.com
At this little café, you can order a cup of Aztec drinking chocolate made by Mariebelle of New York (read: fancy) for $3.75, or take home a pretty little tin of the stuff ($10.50 for a small tin, $21.50 for large). Two other flavors, Café Negro (with a hint of coffee flavor) and Spicy (with a kick of chipotle) are also available, but only in tins, not by the cup.
Kakawa Chocolate House
847 Niñita St., 982-0388, www.kakawachocolates.com
At Santa Fe's house of hot chocolate, owner Mark Sciscenti serves a dozen or so blends of drinking chocolate that he creates according to historical recipes. So if you want to try unsweetened Mesoamerican drinking chocolate, this is the place to do it. Order by the cup (about $6.25) or take home a bag of housemade chocolate balls ($16) to make your own.