My Scummy Cocoa Hypothesis

Chocolate is one of those items that we take for granted nowadays, yet it took a fair bit of engineering and innovation to get us to the point where we could produce a silky smooth chocolate bar. In fact, chocolate, as we know it (i.e. sold in blocks or bars and available in either milk or dark options) is a rather new product on the scene, not being fully realized until Swiss cocoa pioneer Daniel Peter (with help from baby-milk maker Henri Nestlé) was able to remove water from the solid chocolate making process. This occurred in the 1870′s.

Back in the 1500′s, chocolate was consumed in the form of a drink. The standard of preparation that was taught to the Spaniards by the Aztecs was that one should smash the beans, add hot water, and then whip furiously until the massive amount of residual cocoa butter turned frothy. Some flavorings were added of course, possibly honey, certainly chili pepper, probably some herbs or flowers.

The problem was, not every one liked the drink. Take, for example, this quote by José de Acosta, naturalist and Spanish missionary of the late sixteenth century:

“The main benefit of this cacao is a beverage which they make called chocolate, which is a crazy thing valued in that country. It disgusts those who are not used to it, for it has a foam on top, or a scum-like bubbling…”

This scum, as de Acosta calls it, is mentioned by quite a few people who come across chocolate during this time frame, and chocolate, from the evidence at hand, has a a very “love it or hate it” perception.

I don’t think it’s an either/or equation however. While most historians focus on chocolate as the focus of opinion, what I believe is that it’s not the chocolate in of itself that is the problem, but it’s quality of preparation that is the primary criteria by which the drink (and by extension, chocolate) is being judged. The clue, I believe, is found in the process, and knowing a little bit about the composition of the cocoa bean.

The cocoa bean in of itself is known for being particularly fatty, with “cocoa butter” being the common description of that fat. If one were to smash a fair amount of cocoa beans, one would get a residual amount of fat. In fact, extracting the cocoa butter from the cocoa solids is a key step in the chocolate bar making process of today.

Now, imagine putting fat into hot water. The idea is barely intriguing, and not at all appealing, unless one is aware of a technique that would thoroughly incorporate the fat into the water. Such a process does exist of course – emulsifying.

My hypothesis is this: In the 1500′s, if one wanted to have a decent cup of cocoa, one would need to be skilled at creating an emulsion. The result would be an emulsion of cocoa solids, a bit of cocoa liquor, cocoa butter, and water (along with whatever flavoring wanted to add). And the tool one would need would be a whisk of some sort. Of course, such a tool existed back then, and still exists today. The molinillo is a wooden whisk of Mexican origin, known for its use in creating hot cocoa and other beverages. There are some discrepancies as to who invented the molinillo and when, with some reports of it being only available as recent as the 1700′s.

Regardless, my point still stands. One had to emulsify the fat of the cocoa butter properly in order to get a good drink. If you didn’t have the tool or technique down, the result would be similar to what would happen if a vinaigrette was blended improperly – a layer of fat or oil would reside on top of the liquid.

Now imagine that you are a stranger in a strange land, unfamiliar with the local traditions and customs and products of the region. Someone, a local acquaintance perhaps, hands you a mug of water with a layer of fatty scum on its top. You, who have never encountered this drink before, have no idea on whether it was made well or not. And when you taste it, it tastes horrible.

“This is xocolātl!”, your acquaintance states. “It’s the food of the gods!”

Now in this position, with your alien status to the world, would you respond with “Are you sure you made this correctly?” or would you think “Your xocolātl tastes like the grit found in my horses hoof”?

My guess is the latter. But considering the amount of fans that the cocoa drink did have, I’m willing to bet that a percentage of the people writing home to complain about this “scummy beverage”, sampled some that had been made poorly.