Cacao Museum San Cristóbal de las Casas
San Cristóbal de las Casas, Mexico
Do you know how many ways there are to make chocolate? If not, this unassuming little Cacao Museum and Chocolate Shop in San Cristóbal may just fit the bill. And where else would you get the best Mexican hot chocolate?
The chocolate shop is on the ground floor. You can opt for hot chocolate or a selection of natural and moulded chocolates. You can observe how it is made on site through a glass window. The coffee served here is also said to be excellent, grown in Chiapas and served with a stick of cinnamon.
Upstairs on the balcony there is a collection of artefacts and explanations about the history of growing cacao beans since Mayan times. But before we follow that story, a quick note on 'cacao' and 'cocoa' Cacao is the bean and its derivatives, which are highly nutritious. Cocoa is cacao which has been roasted at high temperatures. So from now on, it's 'cacao', okay?
The Olmecs of southern Mexico were likely to have been the first to ferment, roast, and grind cacao beans for drinks and gruels, possibly as early as 1500 BC. In fact their word, kakawa' gave us our word 'cacao'. Sadly, we don't know how they used it. After the Olmecs, the Maya of regions of today's Guatemala and Mexico were the next culture to embrace cacao as food for the gods (and those close to the gods). The word ‘chocolate’ is said to come from the Mayan word ‘xocolatl’, which means ‘bitter water’. Why bitter? Because there was no sugar in Central America. Xocolatl was a liquid made from crushed cacao beans, chilli peppers, and water. And the Maya liked to add honey to it, or vanilla. They poured the liquid from one cup to another to create a frothy foam.
But it was apparently not a drink for everybody, only for the rulers and the noblemen (although at the time of the Spanish Conquest, Bernal Diaz notes that cacao was on general sale in the great market at Tlaltelolco, Mexico City). In ancient times, cacao was considered a medicine and an aphrodisiac. Ancient paintings show cacao in mythological scenes and even court proceedings. In the early 12th century, cacao made its way to the Mixtec and Zapotec tribes of the Oaxacan region of Mexico. The Codex Zouche-Nuttall states that chocolate was used to seal a marriage of the Mixtec ruler 'Eight Deer' at Monte Albán. Cacao pots were also buried with people, for example the ruler of Ek' Balam Ukit Kan Le'k Tok', who ruled the Ek' Balam kingdom between 770-801 AD, had a pottery vase for drinking chocolate next to his head in his burial chamber.
Hernán Cortés, who defeated the Aztecs in the 16th century, wrote to King Carlos I of Spain of 'xocoatl', a drink that 'builds up resistance and fights fatigue'. When Cortés and his men first saw cacao beans in a native canoe, they described them as 'almonds'. The Codex Borbonicus recorded the love of the Aztecs for chocolate. The Aztec ruler Montezuma drank more than 50 cups per day of a frothy chocolate drink mixed with water or wine, seasoned with vanilla, pimiento, and chilli pepper.
Today, sadly, cacao orchards in Mexico are in a state of neglect. Lack of support for the cacao farmers means that they don't get credit for incorporating new technologies and implementing sustainable agricultural techniques. It also doesn't help that modern Mexicans consume far less chocolate than their forbears: a quarter of what the average European eats. Small-scale farmers still produce in the traditional ways that we could see displayed in the museum and cacao production is in crisis. The country has lost nearly half of its cacao production during the last decade, resulting in deforestation across Tabasco and Chiapas — and the loss of valuable traditional knowledge in many communities.
The museum artefacts are mainly displayed around two themes: cacao as ancient currency and the process of making chocolate.
Cacao beans were used as currency, and the seeds were so valuable that it was evidently worth the trouble to counterfeit them. Cacao became important because it's harder to grow compared with maize and cactus, which were used to brew early versions of beer and tequila. It requires a specific kind of soil, amount of rainfall (100 inches or 2500mm a year), and especially shade.
The museum display that will attract you is a rabbit with 100 cacao beans in front of him. Sometime in the 1500s, you could buy a live rabbit for 100 cacao beans, while a duck cost 25 beans. A pottery chocolate vase was somewhere between 20 and 30 beans. A farm labourer's daily wage was worth 100 cacao beans and the services of a 'public' woman just 20 beans! Oviedo says that down in Nicaragua you could find a 'public' woman for half that price: ten beans!
The Aztecs, in their demand for tribute, counted cacao beans in the thousands from their many subjects. This is evidenced in the museum with a display from the Aztec Codex Mendoza which lists the following tributes that the vassals had to pay: strings of jade beans, 40 skins of jaguar, coloured feathers, cacao beans, 2 bezote (lip piercings) of amber and 2 pieces of clear amber the size of a brick. What a way to pay one's taxes.
There are also displays of the formal chocolate services employed by aristocracy in Europe as well as the humble ceramic 'comal' (griddle) used to roast the beans over an open fire. I just loved the ancient drinking vessel unearthed at a Maya site in Chiapas.
I suppose a word of warning is due here, as I may be getting a little over-enthusiastic. If you don't know anything about cacao, or the Maya, and you don't read Spanish, and it's a wet day, you may find the dusty collection of papier-mâché cacao pods just a tad old-school museumy. My own defence mechanism on these occasions is to dream about redesigning the whole display, and now I've seen what the Mexican authorities can do, in places like Palenque and the Maya Museum in Cancún, that's not just a dream. But then I start wondering how we could get all the Mayan codices out of their cases in European museums and bring them back home to Mexico. (Stop me! I need a cup of coffee!)
Back to cacao. In traditional preparation methods, which are still used by small-scale producers, farmers take the seeds out of the pods, and ferment them in a leaf-covered pile. In more modern methods, the seeds are fermented in raised wooden boxes that enable aeration and drainage, and more consistent results. The tools and flavours have changed, but the basic process of roasting and grinding fermented cacao beans, and mixing them with a few simple ingredients, goes back to early Mesoamerican civilisations.
My favourite tools on display were stirring tools, hot cacao frothers called 'molinillos'. These traditional Mexican kitchen tools are hand-carved from solid wood and burned slightly for darker shades. They are designed to create rich froth from scratch. Watch out for them in the market of San Cristóbal de las Casas; I think they make a lovely souvenir present. I also liked 'mano y metate'. Metate is a stone for grinding the beans and mano is the Spanish word for 'hand', and it refers to a stone that is held in the hands and moved back and forth against a larger stone in order to grind the seeds.
Don't make the same mistake as us; we missed out on that cup of hot chocolate or coffee, which they serve here with cinnamon. We came to the museum near closing time and had to go and have a cup elsewhere. We found a 'cafeteria' Via Vai just two blocks away. The coffee and cakes were great (and John even had his shoes cleaned by a Tzotzil boy while sipping his espresso) but I am sure the museum makes them more traditionally.
How to get there: