The first detailed account of the preparation of the drink comes from the Italian merchant seaman Benzoni in 1540. On his travels in the New World, he came across Native Americans preparing cocoa. He was intrigued by the sight of the drink, but was not tempted to try it until his supply of wine had been used up. He watched them drying the cocoa beans, roasting them in earthen pans over a fire, and grinding them between the stones which they also used to grind flour for their bread. They put the resulting paste in cups of calabash, a kind of gourd, and mixed it with water. They then used a special wooden stick, called a molinillo, to beat the mixture. Maize was added as a primitive emulsifier, to help incorporate the cocoa butter. (It was not until the nineteenth century that a Dutch chemist called Van Houten finally worked out how to extract the cocoa butter, to produce the dry cocoa powder which we know today.) Benzoni found the drink bitter, yet satisfying: refreshing without being intoxicating. He also notes its sustaining properties, and the fact that the Native Americans who drank it regularly had thought him foolish to have been so disdainful at first of their nourishing drink.
Sometimes they make tablets of the sugar and chocolate together. . . and they are sold in the shops, and are confected and eaten together like other sweetmeats.
These bars would have been in a very crude form; the cocoa would have been roasted and ground, and then, while still warm, shaped into blocks or sticks. These artisan-produced lumps of chocolate can still be found in Mexico and the Caribbean today. The usual way to make a drink, however, was by dissolving the chocolate paste in water, then adding more water with sugar and boiling it, and finally whipping it with a molinillo. The resulting oily scum or froth was much appreciated, but not by all. In 1640 the English herbalist John Parkinson referred to chocolate as ‘a wash fitter for hogs’.
© 1993 Chantal Coady. All rights reserved.