musings

Back to the Roots: Guatemala’s Cocoa Comeback

The Mayans, the Toltecs and the Aztecs began to cultivate the fruit of the cacao tree more than 3,000 years ago. Considered as the “food of the gods”, the tradition of making chocolate emerged in the Mayan world, which included Guatemala, Honduras, Belize, Mexico and El Salvador.

Guatemala is frequently called “the birthplace of chocolate”, in which the ancient Mayans believed that cacao was a gift from the gods.

The cacao -of the Olmec ka-ka-w– was exchanged as currency and was considered very valuable because of its supposed medicinal and aphrodisiac properties. It’s said that the Aztec emperor Moctezuma used to drink tremendous quantities of cacao, particularly because of its reputation.

The beans were roasted, ground and water was added to make a bitter hot chocolate used in religious ceremonies, buried in the tombs of dignitaries and used to worship Ek Chuah, the Mayan god of the merchants and patron of cacao.

After the arrival of the Spanish conquerors in the sixteenth century, sugar and milk were added to the mixture. Chocolate finally arrived in Europe and in 1585 Spain received the first registered shipment of cocoa beans, where it was very successful in the Spanish court.

In the historic city of Antigua, in Guatemala, cocoa still sweetens the air and the ancient Mayan tradition mixes with Spanish colonial influences. A series of traditional artisans still employ methods used by the ancient Mayans.

During a four-day process, the cocoa beans are dried, roasted, peeled and ground by hand using the traditional metate, a stone mortar.

Although their ancestors preferred their cocoa with corn and chili, locally produced cinnamon, cardamom and sugar are the preferred flavors today. Using a special mat of vegetable origin called petate, the chocolate is divided into tablets that melt in hot water, ready to savor.

However, in Antigua and other Guatemalan cities, like Chocolá, creating artisanal chocolate is a somewhat recent occurrence of the previous ten decades or so.

Mental post-it:  Chocolá is a modern village that lies on top of and within the Preclassic Southern Maya site, whose developmental emphasis was from ca. 1000 BC to AD 200. Chocolá is in the San Pablo Jocopilas municipality in the southern Suchitepéquez department of Guatemala.
The arid growing conditions in Mexico were not adapted to cacao cultivation, thus a mighty military defended the agricultural areas where cacao was grown, in the lowlands of Guatemala, also following closely the harvest in the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan in the current site of Mexico City.

Meanwhile, cacao production dropped in Guatemala, as Spain expanded its geographical reach to South America and found it might import the beans easily from Venezuela, on the Atlantic shore.

In Guatemala, property which grew cacao was utilized for the then thriving cochineal dye commerce, also now, for sugarcane and palm oil cultivation.

 

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