A Prescription for Winter

In the late 16th century, Jesuit missionary Jose de Acosta wrote, in what would become his Historia natural y moral de las Indias, or Natural and Moral History of the Indies, of a locally esteemed New World beverage that was “loathsome to such as are not acquainted with it, having scum or froth that is very unpleasant to taste.”

There is nothing unpleasant or loathsome about this.

Acosta’s work is among the first thorough European surveys of Mexico and Peru and he was eerily spot on about a couple of things. For example, he was the first to suggest that the natives of the Americas may have migrated from Asia via a northern land bridge. Acosta also described altitude sickness, after huffing and puffing his way over the Andes, and was the first to attribute the problem to thin and delicate air, “not proportioned to human breathing.” And though he was a man of his time, Acosta was actually somewhat critical of the Spanish mistreatment of the indigenous population of the New World.

But about this loathsome beverage, he was definitely wrong, because he was referring to hot chocolate. We haven’t quite hit our cold weather stride here in my corner of the world yet this year, but it is looming just up ahead in a January and February that, according to the Farmer’s Almanac, promise to be brutal. As much as I am not really looking forward to the nonstop shivers, I will be prepared when they arrive with plenty of hot chocolate on hand.

I might even be looking forward to those cold nights in front of the fire with a cup of cocoa and a good book.

Mine is certainly sweeter than the Mayans enjoyed theirs, which was more likely to contain peppers or corn than marshmallows, but even bitter and evidently spicy, I find it hard to imagine hot cocoa could ever be truly loathsome. The Spanish eventually came to the same conclusion, most likely because the drink was highly valued, and they weren’t about to leave anything valuable behind.

They’d come around by 1631 when Spanish physician Antonio Colmenero published the earliest printed recipe for hot chocolate in his A Curious Treatise of the Nature and Quality of Chocolate. The recipe required a hundred cocoa beans, two chiles, vanilla, anise, cinnamon, almonds, hazelnuts, some annatto, and finally a boatload of sugar.

Bring on the cold!

Just a quick glance at my spice cabinet tells me that these are not necessarily easy to come by ingredients, and at the time, they weren’t all that attainable for the common folk. Still, the beverage was beloved by nobility and was quite the versatile medicine as well. Colmenero suggests it’s good for treating the skin condition known as morphea, for cleaning teeth and freshening breath, for provoking urination, for expelling poison, and for general protection against communicable diseases.

I don’t know about any of that, but I do know that a nice cup of hot cocoa does fend off the shivers and gladden the heart, and that’s enough for me. I’m not going to add chile peppers or corn to my hot chocolate and I may not have anise quick at hand or, strictly speaking, know what annatto even is, but I do have a box full of Swiss Miss in my pantry just waiting for the weather to turn.

How do you like to drink your cocoa?

18 thoughts on “A Prescription for Winter

  1. Although I don’t drink chocolate to ward off communicable diseases, I do have a cocoa everyday for lunch! And it is ALWAYS cold – summer and winter. Just a heaped teaspoon in a glass of milk and stirred furiously for a couple of minutes!

  2. Carol A Roberson

    Ok, Im gonna give up one of my best secrets…. Swiss Miss makes chocolates called Indulgences,,, and the dark chocolate is a game changer for adults! If you want it sweeter, you could always add whipped cream or a marshmallow.

  3. I really don’t like sweet drinks, so never drink hot cocoa. However, my husband is a sweets junkie and LOVES the stuff.

    One time we were in the Netherlands and stopped in for a warm beverage. He ordered hot chocolate. What showed up was a big steaming pot of milk and a huge mound of chocolate pieces you melted into the milk. I have to admit, the sips I stole were pretty darn tasty…although it could have stood some chili peppers : )

    1. Sounds like you might like the chile pepper and corn variety. I have a friend who makes cocoa bombs, which are big balls of molded chocolate contains peppermint or other yummy things. You’re supposed to put them in hot milk and let them melt. I haven’t tried one yet, but they sound amazing.

  4. Fun that this occurred on the day I need to make more of my hot cocoa mix. I started making my own because I find the mixes too sweet and not chocolaty enough. The proportions go 1 1/2 C cocoa; 1 C nonfat dry milk; 1/2 C sugar; pinch of salt. Recipe can be doubled (or more) as long as the proportions remain the same–and proportions can be adjusted for taste, of course. Three heaping teaspoons make an 8 oz mug and 4 make a 12 oz mug. It’s best to add whipped cream, cream, milk or something with fat to the drink. Because nonfat dry milk varies in consistency, I also mix the ingredients in a food processor. The best cocoa, of course, is made with whole fat milk, sugar, and cocoa and heated on the stove…

    1. That’s great! I like the convenience of the premade packages, but I admit it is better when I mix my own. I don’t go quite as light on the sugar as you do, but I also prefer it a little less sweet.

  5. Phyllis A Parker-hinkle

    My daughters friend who owns a Mexican catering service in Chicago got me hooked on Abuelita Mexican hot chocolate mix. I love it. It’s also available at Walmart and Target. Another great blog, Sarah. Hope you all have a blessed Christmas. — P&D

  6. I don’t drink cocoa, unfortunately – chocolate doesn’t want to be my friend. But there’s nothing like a good warming drink of something on a cold day! I believe the Royal Navy used to serve mugs of cocoa to watchstanders, back when they had open bridges, made so thick the spoon would stand up in it unaided, and with a knob of butter mixed in. Sounds more like part of a chocolate cake recipe to me, but maybe that’s just me…

    1. That sounds like it might be a little too rich for my blood. I’m sorry chocolate doesn’t work for you. I do also enjoy the occasional cup of tea when I want to warm up, but am not feeling quite so indulgent.

I love comments! Please keep them PG, though. I blush easily.

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