(Feature Image: Mayan cacao vessel, 7th-8th century. John L. Severance Fund / Wikimedia Commons)
At a time where many of us are self-isolating due to the threat of COVID-19, encountering uncertainty and worry in addition to being separated from family and friends, it is more important than ever that we find ways to self-soothe. Chocolate is well known for its soothing properties and taking regular warm drinks has been cited as one of various ways to defend against the novel coronavirus. Dark chocolate is also an excellent source of zinc, a mineral that is essential for
promoting our immune function and helping our body to defend against infection. Now would seem to be a good time, then, to crack open the cupboard, dust off the half-used vacuum pack and treat ourselves to a hot mug of that Mayan miracle, cacao.
Cacao is a Mayan institution. According to Mayan lore, the demi-god Quetzalcoatl (also known as the Plumed Serpent) discovered cacao on a mountain and decided to bestow it upon the Maya, who in turn worshiped a specific cacao god called Ek Chuah. Each year a celebration was held in Ek Chuah’s honour, with the proffering of cacao seeds and the sacrifice of cacao-coloured dogs among the rituals. The Mayans considered cacao to be sacred and used it in various religious practices as a form of sacrament. They also imbibed it as a bitter-tasting drink, grounding cacao seeds into a paste and combining with hot water, corn and spices. While there is some debate as to how this concoction came to be called “chocolate”, scholars agree on the fact that the name derives from a Mesoamerican term that was then converted into Spanish.
(Cacao Beans - Photograph courtesy of Adam Welker)
After the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs in the late fifteenth century, the conquistadors brought cacao back to Europe. At this point it was still consumed as a pungent beverage and had limited popularity. Indeed, in the second half of the sixteenth century Jose de Acosta, a Spanish Jesuit missionary, described its ‘very unpleasant taste’ and suggested that it was ‘loathsome to such as are not acquainted with it’. Soon, however, sugar or honey was added to the mixture and hot chocolate became a court favourite. Within a hundred years hot chocolate was in demand across Europe. Chocolate in its edible form came into being as a result of three main innovations. First, in 1815, Coenraad van Houten developed a means of removing the natural fat (cacao butter) from chocolate liquor. Next, in 1847, Joseph Fry found a way of creating a paste from melted cacao butter, cocoa powder and sugar that could then be pressed into a mold. Finally, in 1875, Daniel Peter created milk chocolate by mixing powdered milk (created by Henri Nestlé) with chocolate liquor. A chocolate bar was the result.
(Cacao Pods - Photograph courtesy of Adam Welker)
Nowadays we are arguably more familiar with hot “cocoa” than hot “cacao.” While both substances pertain to chocolate beverages, cacao refers to the plant or its beans before they have been processed, whereas cocoa is the name given to the powder produced by fermenting, shelling, grounding and roasting the cacao beans. Nonetheless, in recent years, the consumption of raw cacao
(in powdered form) has grown in popularity as more people have become aware of its health benefits. In addition to its immune-promoting zinc, cacao is full of iron, calcium and magnesium and boasts more antioxidants than blueberries. A source of plant compounds such as flavanols, it also helps to boost gut bacteria that helps to protect us against viruses – something that is extremely important at present.
Hot cacao has a different flavour to conventional hot chocolate. It is muskier, more subtle, a little tart – more like drinking dark chocolate than its milk relative. However, when hot cacao is made with cinnamon and honey, as in the Mayan style recipe below, it creates a delicious, frothy and wholesome drink that is perfect for those days when you are stuck at home and need to warm your
weary mind. Take a sip of the rich brew, sink bank into the sofa, and take a moment to say thank you to the Mayan cacao god Ek Chuah!
If you need to replenish your cacao supplies you can order it for delivery from the gift section of our online store here!
MAYAN HOT CACAO RECIPE
(Courtesy of www.mykitchen.co.za)
Makes 1 cup / Cooking time 10 minutes
3 tbsp quality cacao powder
1 tsp cinnamon
1 pinch cayenne pepper
1 tsp vanilla essence
1 cup of either full-cream milk or oat milk (for a healthier option)
Honey, to taste
1. Mix the cacao, cinnamon, cayenne pepper and vanilla essence together in a mug.
2. Pour the milk into a glass container and microwave at full power until it begins to boil (about 2 minutes).
3. Slowly pour the hot milk over the mixture in the mug, stirring with a small whisk as you pour.
4. Add honey to taste, and enjoy.