High atop the temple pyramid of Tenochtitlan, the Aztec priest meticulously brews his sacred drink. A paste is formed using roasted ground cacao, there is the strong heady waft of cinnamon, a slight sweetness of vanilla, a hot fiery sting of pepper.
He stares down at the molcajete¸ rhythmically pounding against the mortar with his pestle. Prayers are muttered under his breath, he enters deep into a trance as he slowly pours boiling water. That bitter fragrant vapor, a true connection to the gods … a breath of sacred eternity that goes straight through his lungs and into his soul. He is no longer concerned by the hundreds of young women in the crowd who have anticipated this day for the past eight years. Dressed in animal and flowered masks forming a sea of grotesque beauty, they have all come to worship Xochiquetzal, goddess of fertility, beauty and female sexual power. Today is her day. This drink is her drink. And on this feast day, the sacred beverage is to be shared so that the mortal and immortal can be as one.
We’ve been hooked since day one. There is no fight to be put up, no cure to be had against the grasp chocolate has on us. Scientists say it’s the high concentration of theobromine found in cacao that increases serotonin (happy hormone) levels in the brain; I say it’s that plus everything else. With so much importance in history and culture, how can modern-day man resist the empirical wonders chocolate has to offer?
The theobroma cacao tree has been cultivated for over 3,000 years in Central and South America. The earliest records show that the seeds of the cacao tree were already being used in the pre-Olmec era in the Honduras. Xocolatl is the ancient Aztec Nuahatl word for their beverage of the gods. Literally meaning “bitter water,” Aztec priests would make offerings and drink a rich, frothy cup of fermented cacao seeds with dried chili peppers, annatto seeds, vanilla and cinnamon. Brought back to Europe by Spanish conquistadors, this exotic beverage quickly took hold of the royal courts. So much so that it drove colonies to Mesoamerican slavery to produce more of that dark, good stuff. For hundreds of years chocolate was drunk; only at the end of the 18th century did chocolate become solid. Ground cocoa solids were mixed with pure cocoa butter and eventually milk and sugar were added to temper the bitterness. A capricious ingredient, it took years to perfect chocolate the way we know it today.
Good chocolate is sensitive to temperature and when treated with love and care will succumb to all your desires. Ganache, couverture, sauce, bars, pralines, truffles… Imagine a stick of lush vanilla ice cream, dipped into a shiny pool of luscious dark chocolate. It hardens instantly upon the icy contact, creating a precious, protective shell that will unleash pure Pandoric delight when cracked. Yes, it’s here. Those who have been to Europe know what I’m talking about. Magnum is in town.
I’m terrible at making desserts but I used to love to entertain in France, especially summers when we’d be at some friend’s country home. Long, late summer days, hot and sticky, we’d all smell like rosé wine and charcoal from the barbecue. The perfect dessert was waiting patiently in the freezer: Magnum bars. It was a small moment of quiet as we all heard the crack of the Belgian chocolate as it yielded to unctuous vanilla. Small, sinful, worth it.
Chocolate: sometimes synonymous with sex and always synonymous with indulgence and pleasure. I’m not much of a sweet tooth but I must admit that once in a while the allure of melting dark chocolate on my tongue — creating that velvety-smooth sensation mingling with cool, creamy vanilla — is just too hard to resist. What is it about a chocolate moment that just goes straight to our brains? That can make the world around us drift away, that can make heartaches mend, frustrations disappear, deadlines get pushed back into infinity? Perhaps sexy Aztec goddess Xochiquetzal still lives on, communicating to us through every possible form, sharing her sensuality and this time in a chocolate ice cream bar.