Photo: Mujer vertiendo chocolate - Codex Tudela. (United States Domain Tag: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Commons:Copyright_tags#United_States )
“After straining, the cacao is lifted up high so it will pour in a good stream, and this is what raises the froth. And whoever makes it well, makes and sells the cacao such as only the lords drink: smooth, frothy, vermillion red, and pure, without much corn masa. Cacao that is no good has a lot of masa and a lot of water, and so it doesn’t make a good froth, only a bubbly scum.”
Those were the words of Bernardino de Sahagún, a 16th century Spanish missionary who wrote about the Aztec culture during the contentious period of the conquest of Mexico. He documented daily rituals, spiritual practices, and culture of the indigenous people including their consumption and production of cacao. Today, we might label this as ‘anthropology,’ or even a modern form of storytelling. And as such, we can only make guesses as to how well his descriptions accurately portrayed the actual customs of the indigenous peoples he interviewed.
A while back, Lauren Heineck interviewed me for the WellTempered podcast. Like any good interviewer, she started with a simple warm-up question. Except, the question “What did you have for breakfast this morning?,” turned out to be not so simple. I had been experimenting with different cacao beverages she joked that recipe might be called “Bulletproof Chocolate.” We soon discovered that this name has already been claimed as a registered trademark. Nor is the idea of a foamy chocolate drink all that original. Clearly, as Sahagún documented, people have been consuming frothy hot chocolate and coming up with their own concoctions for centuries. What's the big deal with foam? One of the reasons I learned during interviews with cacao farmers in fieldwork in Tabasco, Mexico is that the air bubbles captured the celestial or ‘divine’ properties of chocolate as food of the Gods.
Whether as daily ritual or occasional drink of indulgence, foamy hot chocolate is not something I—nor Sahagún—invented.
You can still enjoy it.
Foamy Chocolate Mate
What do I do to start each day the right way?
Mm, I get high with a little chocolate mate
Uh-hum, gonna be happy first thing in the day.
Lend me your tongue and I’ll give you a taste.
Filtered water, 8 oz.
Yerba Mate tea, loose leave, 1 tbsp.
Milk, ¼ cup (anything that suits your fancy including coconut, almond, hazelnut, hemp, or cow’s milk).
Cocoa powder, 1 tbsp.
Coconut oil, 1 tsp.
Cinnamon, a dash
Chili pepper, a smaller dash
Optional superfood add-ons: Reishi mushroom powder (1/4 tsp), maca root powder (1/2 tsp).
Percolator, French press, tea ball, tea press, tea pot, strainer, or espresso machine
1: Heat up the water to 170 F. Measure and add the mate tea leaves to a strainer. Moisten the leaves with cool water before brewing.
2: Pour heated water over the mate leaves (ideally, pour-over style in a steady stream over the leaves, starting in the outer rim and moving in concentric circles inward).
3: Cover and steep the mate leaves for 4-6 minutes.
4: Heat up the milk over the stove until it reaches 160-180 F.
5: Add the brewed mate to the pot of milk. Add the cocoa powder, coconut oil, spices and optional add-ons.
6: Either whisk the ingredients quickly in a pot or transfer to a blender to foam up and cool down the beverage.
Follow the recipe, or not. It is an invitation to make your own version of the century-old tradition.
 “Hot chocolate to the rescue.” BBC World Series: The Forum. 22 May 2017.
 Weeks, M.R. (2011). La comida de los dioses: El cacao en México y la transformación de la sociedad mexicana./Food of the Gods: Cacao in Mexico and the transformation of Mexican society. (Unpublished B.A. thesis). Wellesley College, Wellesley, MA.
What happens when you give a group of 30 middle school students chocolate? Do they squirm with delight? Nope.
To be honest, I was horrified. Here I am trying to tell people to eat better chocolate—when I realize that my own concept of “good” chocolate is not what most kids are used to eating.
I had asked students to evaluate chocolate in terms of taste, and the respective chocolate companies on their pledges to social and environmental sustainability. The activity was immediately off to a bad start when I handed out the cacao beans and showed students how to crack open the shells and munch the bitter nibs. The disillusionment continued as these students moved through the dark end of the chocolate spectrum, tasting bars of 85%, 72%, and 70% cocoa mass.
It would have been horribly easier—and more popular—to throw in a sugary Cadbury Dairy Milk or Kinder bar.
Doing so would have been betrayal of my own beliefs about chocolate. I was on a mission to educate their palates and train the future connoisseurs of high quality chocolate. Yet, what these kids demanded was the sugary milk chocolate that they were familiar to eating. In all fairness a handful of students actually liked the dark chocolate selection. It may not be their fault that they are raised eating sweet milk chocolate. Even my first love of chocolate started with (and I hate to admit) a Hershey's’ peanut butter cup.
Are kids more hard-wired to like sweet?
This motivated me to do some research. It turns out that our taste buds really do change over time and can develop just as bodies and minds do. One study in 2002 by the University of Western Sydney, Australia indicated that female children were slightly more sensitive to tastes sweet, salty, and bitter than are male children. Another study by the University of Copenhagen corroborates this, adding to it that male children have a stronger preference for sweet. Not until around age 13-14 do kids begin to demand less sweet and become more comfortable with bitter. This may also be cultural and overall there is relatively little scientific research on children’s sense of taste and exactly how it changes over time. Because kids have 10,000 taste buds compared to adults who have about 5,000 working taste buds, kids are more sensitive to extreme tastes like bitter and have more proclivity for sugar.
The flavor of chocolate is the most important factor in determining consumer preference, and is the result of a complex process starting from the genetics of the plant to the post-harvest treatment like fermenta tion and drying. At least 800 flavor compounds are associated chocolate, which is even more than fine wine. This flavor will obviously be influenced by the quality of the ingredients, including the non-cocoa ingredients like sugar. Texture will influence our ability to perceive these flavors. By changing the particle size it is possible for more cocoa flavor to emerge with less of the raw cocoa ingredient (Voltz & Beckett, 1997). Grinding chocolate for longer periods of time through a process called “conching” will break down the chocolate into smaller particles.
As chocolate is ground, its chemical matrix will go through a series of alterations to its crystalline structure. According to a talk at the Cambridge Science Museum, the tongue cannot taste particles below 15 micron, which is why chocolate conched for longer periods of time, like the Galaxy bar, has a smaller particle size and thus tastes smoother. This also has to do with the viscosity, which changes how long the particles linger on the tongue. Since sugar is a hydrophobic compound, emulsification allows the fat to come into contact with the sugar, and we perceive this chocolate as smoother.
Flavor perception is the result of a complex process involving different parts of the body: the teeth (touch like snap and mouthfeel), the tongue (sour, bitter, salty, sweet, and unami), the nose (aroma), and the throat (flow, viscosity). From the moment we unwrap a chocolate bar our eyes and nose have already begun to assess the chocolate. The longer we allow chocolate to melt on our tongue, the greater the release of volatiles that increase our perception of flavors (Engelen et al, 2003). Chocolate with a higher viscosity will stay on our tongue for longer (Afoakwat et al, 2008d), which may explain why we can easily perceive the melt-in-your-mouth quality of milk chocolates. Dark chocolate takes longer to go through the full journey of taste to really appreciate its full flavor profile.
Getting kids to like the dark chocolate may not be just a matter of taste, but also a matter of patience.
Afoakwa, E. O. 2011. Sensory character and flavour perception of chocolates. Chocolate Science and Technology. Wiley.
Culter, Jennifer. “The Difference Between the Taste Buds of Adults & Kids.” Demand Media. 20 March 2015.
Engelen, L., de Wijk, R. A. Prinz, J.F. Janssen, A.M., Van Der Bilt, A., Weenen, H. & Bosman, F. (2003). A comparison of the effect of added saliva, alpha-amylase and water on texture and flavor perception in semisolid foods. Physiology and Behavior, 78, 805-811.
University of Copenhagen. “Girls Have Superior Sense of Taste to Boys.” 18 December 2008. 20 March 2015.
Voltz, M. & Beckett, S.T. (1997). Sensory of chocolate. The Manufacturing Confectioner, 77, 49-53.
“Tamales tamales. Tamales tamales,” yells a street vendor. Groggily, I come to my senses and smile when I remember that I am back in Mexico. The familiar sounds and smells awake me.
- Sensitivity of taste in children and adults: C. James and D. G. Laing. University of Western Sydney, Australia. Appetite, 24, 68.
My sense of time is thrown off by the international travels and a red-eye bus ride from Mexico City airport to Xalapa. Shortly after dawn, I arrive at Suites Jazmin, where the owner Miguel Luis Gonzáles greets me in his bathrobe and slippers. He leads me through the central courtyard of orange trees, roses, banana trees, and a fountain to the three-story apartment complex. From my apartment balcony, I look out to a sea of hanging laundry, brightly colored houses with potted plants, and dogs wandering through the neighborhood. This is Mexico, I think to myself.
After showing me around the apartment and explaining a large set of skeleton keys, Miguel extends a typical gesture of Mexican hospitality: “¿Te gusta la comida mexicana?” (Do you like Mexican cuisine?). He happens to have extra tamales from yesterday’s celebrations of el Día de los Muertos. During this festival of the dead, families gather to share pan de muertos (a sweet bread), hot chocolate, tamales, and other regional foods. Families decorate altars with flowers and offerings of food to invite their ancestors to symbolically share the meal and take part in the celebrations. Despite arriving the day after el Día de los Muertos and missing most of the celebration, I am still able to taste one of the traditional festival foods: tamales.
That night I as crawl into bed, I hear a familiar call from the street: “Tamales tamales.”