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.”
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.
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.
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?