Photo by Alex Whitmore
Mexican chocolate is the confectionery equivalent of Rodney Dangerfield. I don't understand why, because ever since I first traveled to Mexico and sampled crumbly, simply made chocolate para mesa I've been hooked. I suppose one reason could be that just like European-style chocolate, Mexican chocolate varies greatly in quality from producer to producer. And some of the best stuff can't be found outside Mexico.
One of the main differences between the chocolate traditions of Europe and the Americas is their age. The cacao bean, indigenous to South America, entered Europe only with the Spanish in the 1500s, and it wasn't until the mid-1800s that it was first consumed in bar form. At the time, Europeans applying technology to all sorts of crafts, including chocolate-making. They ended up creating something that, while chocolaty, was very smooth and sweet--completely different from what the American cultures made and continue to make today. The American tradition of chocolate, in contrast, is documented to have existed for at least two millennia. During this time it has become an integral part of many complex cultural and food traditions.
The stuff in yellow hexagonal boxes you find in most larger grocery stores and Latin-American food stores is to Mexican chocolate what the Nestle bar is to European chocolate. All through Mexico (though more in the southern states), there exist small tiendas de chocolate. These shops buy cocoa beans from farmers or merchants and will roast and grind the beans to order.
Each shop has its own methods and mills for grinding cocoa and will gladly mix in ingredients like vanilla beans, cinnamon, almonds, chiles, and corn meal according to the customer's preferences. The best chocolate shops in Mexico are closest to the areas where cocoa is cultivated, particularly in the states of Tabasco, Chiapas, and Oaxaca.
Mexican chocolate offers surprising, rustic, explosive flavors. The unique range--which, with all due respect, you just won't find in a bar of Valrhona--is thanks as much to the high quality of Mexican cacao as to the low-tech method used to turn beans into chocolate. Mexican chocolate is very minimally processed, made quickly and easily without recourse to expensive, computerized equipment.
Photo by Alex Whitmore
The beans, after having been fermented on the farm and roasted, are ground in a stone mill called a molino. The ground-up beans (now somewhat confusingly called cocoa liquor) are mixed with ingredients like sugar, vanilla, and cinnamon, then ground again into a paste. And that's about it. In the tradition of Mexican chocolate, there is no conching (long, thorough mixing), no intensive refining, no addition of cocoa butter. What you end up with is a chocolate that feels and tastes truer to the bean than its velvety counterparts on the other side of the pond.
So why doesn't Mexican chocolate get its due? Maybe it's the headstrong flavors that overwhelm people accustomed to meek chocolate. Or perhaps it's the unapologetic coarseness that accosts an unsuspecting palate for the first time. But these are the qualities I find most appealing. I've grown to crave the grainy texture so much that, while most Mexicans consume their chocolate as a drink, I eat it straight out of the bag. This kind of chocolate makes me remember that, for thousands of years, chocolate was a food--not a candy.
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