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Chocolate : Chocolate, Aztec-Style : History: For 300 years, chocolate was a reddish drink flavored with anise and rosewater. And you think we're doing weird things with chocolate now.

April 22, 1993|CHARLES PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In 1519, a Spaniard named Hernan Cortes was present at the Aztec court when the Emperor Montezuma was offered 50 golden bowls of a foaming beverage called chocolatl. Nine years later, when Cortes had become captain general of Mexico, he appeared at another royal court, this one back in Spain, where he had returned to answer various charges against him. He took the occasion to introduce his own emperor to chocolate, which suggests that the conquistador knew he had come upon something irresistible.

He was right. Chocolate was the first nonalcoholic stimulant drink Europeans ever encountered (coffee wouldn't reach Italy until 1615 and tea took even longer). The Spanish were impressed by this strengthening medicine. You could travel all day after drinking a single cup in the morning, they said, and some of their doctors claimed chocolate was a perfect all-in-one food that made people "fat, fair and amiable." It was bitter, like many traditional European medicines, so the Spanish instinctively made it into a "confection"--that is, a medicine sweetened with sugar to make it more palatable. Chocolate manufacturers were trained much like druggists or doctors, and some actually were doctors.

For about a century, chocolate was Spain's little secret, scarcely known to other Europeans. Then there was a great chocolate boom, beginning among the French aristocracy in the late 1650s and spreading quickly throughout Western Europe.

Most people say the boom was due to Louis XIV of France's marriage to Maria Theresa of Spain. True, the young queen loved chocolate and her entourage included a maid who specialized in making it, but another factor was probably at least as important. Between 1640 and 1680, the sugar plantations of Brazil and the Caribbean expanded greatly, driving down the price of sugar on the European market by 70%. It can't be an accident that two bitter drinks--chocolate and coffee--became popular at the same time the sugar to sweeten them became affordable.

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The drink that people called chocolate in those days wasn't much like cocoa, which is basically chocolate with the cocoa butter removed. Because this process hadn't been invented, 17th-Century and 18th-Century chocolate was richer than cocoa--but much harder to handle. Try melting a chocolate bar or two in a cup of hot water and you'll see why chocolate drinkers had to own a glorified swizzle stick called a molinillo , or cocoa mill. The drink becomes a gummy mess if you don't stir it frequently.

But this was just one of the differences between chocolate and cocoa. Drinking chocolate was usually thickened with ground nuts. Since the alkaline process hadn't been invented, it was very bitter (the Aztec name chocolatl means bitter water ), so it was heavily sweetened. Vanilla wasn't the only spice it was flavored with either. One old recipe calls for a pound of anise, four ounces of pepper and an ounce each of cinnamon and nutmeg, to say nothing of smaller quantities of musk, ambergris and rose water, to flavor six pounds of cocoa beans (plus six pounds of sugar, a pound of pistachios and a quarter pound of almonds).

And drinking chocolate was often tinted with achiote (annatto)--the Mexican herb that makes Cheddar cheese orange and margarine yellow--or other dyes. In the 17th and 18th centuries, a cup of chocolate was likely to be ocher-colored or brick red.

In making their chocolate this way, the Europeans were actually following the Aztec practice. Some of Montezuma's own golden bowls of chocolate were sweetened with honey, and most of the rest were flavored with various spices and herbs. Among the varieties of chocolatl he was served, some were dyed bright-red, dull red or orange. The Aztecs thickened their chocolate too, though with cornmeal rather than ground nuts.

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One Aztec recipe noted by a Spanish observer went as follows: 100 well-toasted cocoa beans, a double handful of cornmeal masa and three flavorings-- tlilxochitl , mecaxochitl and hueinacaztli. Tlilxochitl is simply vanilla. Mecaxochitl is hoja santa , a relative of black pepper that has a strong anise flavor.

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