Historic Chocolate

historic chocolate

Historic chocolate was a bitter drink that burned as it went down.  The beverage that people know and love today looks little like the original chocolate of Mesoamerica. Residents of modern day central Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and northern Costa Rica discovered the bean that would live beyond their lifetime.

Within the Mesoamerica region, chocolate or cacahuatl (cocoa water) as it was formerly called, reigned. The cacao tree itself is unusual. The pods on the tree grow not only from the leaves, but from the trunk as well. The Mayas were smart to explore this unusual tree. Inside of its oval-shaped pod sits a thick whitish pulp. This pulp has a sweet taste. Called “baba de cacao” this drink is consumed  in parts of Brazil and South America today. Once inside, the cacao seeds are stacked in a column in the middle. The cacao seeds have no discernible chocolate taste at this time. It is only after the seed is fermented, roasted and then ground into a smooth but bitter paste that it resembles chocolate. To make it more palatable, this paste is mixed with hot water and various spices such as annatto, allspice, chili and vanilla. To sweeten it, flower and/or honey were added to the mixture. The work of changing the cacao seed to a tasty drink was previously done by peasants and servants.

History repeats itself today in Delaware. The Lewes Historical Society in Lewes is not manned by peasant or servants, but they have procured their very own ancient cacahuatl. Chocolatiers Wendel Rittenhouse and Al Geyser found a recipe not from the pre-Columbian times but a little more recent; a cookbook from the 1750s. Although the ingredients were not specific and the gentlemen were not sure of exact measurements, they created a spicy piece of historic chocolate that visitors to the center enjoy. In fact, they have been selling specialty chocolates out of the Lewes location since December.

Historic Chocolate

Rittenhouse and Geyser, tired of making the traditionally sweet confectionaries at their day job at Mars North America, decided to spice it up during their off-time. They brought their hot chocolate, laden with pepper and cinnamon, to the masses at the Antique Fair held at the Lewes Historical Society. Mars North America in Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania sponsors the museum and the historic chocolate presented by the gentlemen is made historically correct with ingredients available during that time.

Today’s hot chocolate is a kissing cousin to the historic chocolate of Mesoamerica, but there are differences. While ancient hot cocoa was bitter and even burned going down, today’s hot chocolate is smooth and sweet to a fault. Historic chocolate started as a block which was grated down and melded into a specialized hot chocolate pot. Today, consumers visit the local grocery store, pick up a package and heat it up with hot water or milk. The nutritional content of Mesoamerican hot cocoa was high, rich in antioxidants with cacao pods that had not been tainted with lead from the environment. Today’s hot chocolate ingredient list starts with high fructose corn syrup, corn syrup solids, sugar with cocoa powder towards the end of the list.

By Danielle Branch


Delaware Online

Smithsonian Magazine

USA Today

Photo by Robyn Lee – License

Photo by Marta Silver – License

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