BY NAAILAH AULADIN
This past Christmas I spent my day making artisanal chocolate and it was so satisfying to my soul. I helped the chocolatier Scott make rocky road bars, learned to temper chocolate, dipped scrumptious toffee and marshmallow base with delicious finger-licking liquid gold and made caramel brittle bars covered in white chocolate. As a helper, I sampled a lot, of course, to make sure they were package-worthy!
Chocolate or cacao has a special place in my heart and my love grew exponentially after I moved to Mexico. A few years ago, the word chocolate would instantly evoke deliciously wrapped sweet confectioneries or scrumptious layered cakes with ganache or even a viennoise baked to perfection with a gooey chocolate centre.
Mexico changed that for me, quickly.
Before we delve into how Mexico transformed my chocolate perception, let’s rewind and unravel the vibrant history of this divine duo. The story commences in Mesoamerica, nestled within the verdant embrace of the Mayan jungles. The Olmecs, a mysterious civilization, were the first to cultivate cacao seeds around 1500 BCE, treating them with reverence as a gift from the gods. They brewed these precious beans into a frothy, bitter concoction called “xocolatl,” infused with chilli peppers, cornmeal, and other spices. This potent elixir wasn’t simply a treat; it held sacred importance, consumed during rituals and revered for its invigorating and even medicinal properties.
The Mayans inherited this legacy, further refining the art of xocolatl. They embellished it with honey and exotic spices, transforming it into a symbol of power and prestige, reserved for rulers and warriors. Grand ceremonies witnessed the ceremonial pouring of this frothy brew from intricately carved gourds, its aroma swirling through the air like an enchanting incense.
Fast forward to the Aztecs, the masterful Mesoamerican empire. They not only embraced xocolatl but elevated it to dizzying heights. Imagine Aztec emperors sipping on this sacred beverage adorned with gold dust, its bittersweet symphony playing on their palates while they strategized conquests. Xocolatl was more than just a drink; it was currency, tribute, and a symbol of divine favour. The Aztec god Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent, was even said to have gifted this celestial nectar to humanity.
Then came the fateful arrival of the Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century. Initially repulsed by the bitter xocolatl, they soon discovered its potential as a luxury commodity. Enterprising minds in Europe recognized its hidden sweetness, adding sugar and other European touches to create a smoother, more decadent version.
This Europeanized chocolate quickly captivated the continent, launching a global love affair that continues to this day. Yet, despite its global journey, the roots of chocolate remain firmly nestled in Mexico’s soil. The land still whispers tales of ancient rituals and emperors crowned in cacao, its spirit infused in every hand-molded Oaxacan tablet and every fiery mole sauce – to date my favourite sauce.
Mexico isn’t just the birthplace of chocolate; it’s its beating heart, a land where every bite resonates with the echoes of history and the whispers of gods.
Two years ago, my chocolate experience transcended the realm of sugary confections and entered the captivating world of cacao ceremonies. These weren’t mere gatherings; they were journeys into self-discovery, fueled by the potent energy of pure, ceremonial-grade cacao. Unlike its commercially sweetened counterpart, ceremonial cacao is raw, minimally processed, and bursting with nutrients and bioactive compounds. It holds a significantly higher concentration of theobromine and theobromine’s cousin, caffeine, both known for their mood-boosting and energy-enhancing properties. But unlike caffeine’s jittery rush, theobromine offers a gentle, sustained uplift, keeping you alert and focused without the unwanted side effects. But the magic of cacao goes beyond mere stimulants. It’s a treasure trove of antioxidants, like flavonoids, that combat free radicals and protect your cells from oxidative stress.
Research suggests these antioxidants may even contribute to improved cognitive function, memory, and learning. Yet, the true heart of a cacao ceremony lies in its power to unlock emotional states. Cacao contains anandamide, commonly referred to as the “bliss molecule,” and phenylethylamine (PEA), a natural mood elevator. These compounds interact with your brain’s endocannabinoid system and dopamine pathways, promoting feelings of joy, calmness, and connection. Think of it as a gentle nudge towards introspection and openness. The ceremonial setting, often accompanied by guided meditations, music, or shared intentions, provides a safe space for self-reflection and emotional release. People report experiences ranging from deep inner peace to profound insights and even spontaneous moments of gratitude and connection with others.
Having had these profound experiences with cacao, I was pleased to see that Scott, owner of Baja Chocolate, was creating a fusion with his artisanal handmade deliciousness. Using dark chocolate from Oaxaca, he is elevating the chocolate scene in the Baja Region, using premium-grade ingredients while still making it affordable for all. When we enjoy a piece of chocolate, we rarely think of the process that resulted in that final product, lost in the flavours melting in our mouth. Yet, the process, I assure you, is not as simple as one might think. From having the correct temperature for the chocolate through the process of tempering, roasting the nuts, and making the different types of fillings, each chocolate recipe felt like its own unique journey, a sort of meditative odyssey, from start to finish.
Baja Chocolate embodies the true passion and love for chocolate making and has a great level of respect for the history of cacao and its Mexican roots. Adding to the Baja charm, Scott uses ingredients such as locally grown citrus and locally sourced honey, accentuating the taste with some local magic. As for me, the quality of the ingredients and the cacao really shined when I tasted them, allowing for a final product that was not overly sweet, but rather well-balanced and highly pleasurable. Scott and I also discussed the value of more traditional cacao ceremonies and he explained that in the new year, his team and he will be hosting some, which I so look forward to attending.
Cacao overall has many benefits with its concentrated antioxidants and bioactive compounds and can have a positive impact on cardiovascular health. So as you keep on your goals for a better and healthier 2024, I invite you to include some high-quality cacao into your life.
Scott currently sells to stores and individuals on order from his artisanal factory directly in La Paz – they can buy directly from him and contact him at: whatsapp +52 612 167 4009.
For more, follow my adventures on Instagram @naailahauladin