Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Cacao (Chocolate)

Author’s note: A lot of the information on how the Maya viewed and ate and drank cacao comes from the Classic period. This is because this period has the most text information from painted texts and pictures on ceramics, which come from the context of what is understood to be the elite class. The Maya codices, understood to be from the Postclassic period, are another source of information on the Maya view of cacao.



Other than corn, one of the foods most talked about when it comes to Maya cuisine is cacao. It comes from the cacao (Theobroma cacao), also known as the chocolate tree, which the ancient Maya cultivated for its fruit as well as its seeds – from which they made cacao. The ancient Maya viewed cacao as a precious substance, and used it as food as well as for religious and economic purposes.

The Tree
Found only in wet, tropical lowlands, the cacao is found in Mesoamerica and the Amazon Basin. The tree has leathery and long leaves and a wide trunk. The tree produces pink flowers on its trunk and branches—flowers whose smell repels human noses. After these bloom, the tree produces its edible, red-brown fruit pods with sweet flavored flesh and twenty to fifty seeds.
The ancient Maya, who in the Yucatan Peninsula at least, grew plantations of cacao trees, possessed methods to grow the trees well. They pruned the trees to make them grow more seedpods (this happens with some other plants as well), and they had to keep the trees out of direct sunlight.

History
It is understood that the ancient Maya began using cacao seeds as a food source 2,000 years ago or so. Based on a vessel with a spout that comes from Belize, cacao consumption started somewhere around 600 BC to around 400 BC.

Cacao usage has been found throughout the Classic period in the southern lowlands of the Maya world. But in the northern area of the Maya world, the Yucatan Peninsula, archaeologists have only found cacao consumption as far back as the Late Classic.

The Process
To begin the process of making cacao, the Maya first opened the seedpod and removed the seeds, which were white in color and bitter. Then they fermented the seeds for several days, decreasing the bitterness and bringing out the chocolate flavor. After fermentation, the seeds were roasted and shelled. The ancient Maya then mashed the seeds into a paste and it was this paste that they used for in food.

Four hundred seeds makes a pound of chocolate -- a bag of baking chips is about twelve or fourteen ounces, four to two less ounces than a pound. This means it takes about 10 to 20 pods to make a pound of chocolate.

Cacao Drinks and Foods
The ancient Maya made different kinds of drinks (hot and cold ones) via the medium of cacao. They would flavor their chocolate drinks with such things as chilies and seeds such as annatto. Another ingredient that the ancient Maya would sometimes use is honey.

Of the different kinds, a well-known kind of drink the ancient Maya made included chocolate and corn, and was a frothy/foamy drink that was savory. The foam was considered the best part of this drink.

However, drinks weren’t the only food the ancient Maya used cacao for. They also used cacao in gruels.

Containers
The vessels that the Maya used for the serving of cacao-based drinks come in a range of shapes. The most common kind of vessel the Maya used for chocolate is a basic cup. More rare is the spouted vessel that looks like a teapot.

Significance
In the ancient Maya religion, cacao seeds were a kind of offering to the gods. In the Popol Vuh – a book recording Quiche Maya myths – chocolate was something that came out of the mountain Paxil, when it broke open. Beyond mythological meaning, it is also understood that people drank the foamy chocolate drink during their wedding ceremony.

Other than having a religious significance, cacao also served a function in the ancient Maya economy: cacao seeds were used as a kind of currency.

Consideration
Some of what is known about what the Maya made using chocolate comes from chemical analysis of residues on the bottom of ceramics. Hershey Corporation was the first to discover the chemical signature of chocolate in 1990, using a lidded vessel discovered in Rio Azul.

References:
The Free Dictionary: Encyclopedia: Cacao

"Food, Farming and Hunting"; Emory Dean Keoke, Kay Marie Porterfield; 2005

"Chocolate - History, Culture, and Heritage"; Louis E. Grivetti, Howard-Yana Shapiro; 2011

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