Laura Ximena Triana

The Magic of Cacao

Of flowers, rituals, and sensations

The origins of chocolate -this sublime natural creation- are traced back to the Ulua river valley in Honduras around 1100 BCE (Norton, 2008). The Olmec community or their descendants provided the word Kakawa, which appeared in the Mayan languages as kakaw, in Nahuatl as Kakaw-atl (or cacautl), and we find similar variants in other Mesoamerican languages. Cacao derives from the Theobrama Cacao tree, a unique arboreal variety with a dark trunk from which small flowers  bloom that become “largish, rhombus, striated red pods” (Norton, 2008).


Codex Tudela - "Mujer vertiendo chocolate" A page from a manuscript created in 1553 that depicts a woman making chocolate. She produces the foam by pouring from a heigh. (Reusing this file) Source: Wikimedia. 

Late in the Mayan classical period (200-900 CE), there were different physical and symbolic references to cacao: such as vessels with glyphs depicting cacao and its multiple uses. In the Mexica empire cacao was enjoyed mainly as a beverage prepared by cooking a mixture of cacao with water and , maize, that was sometimes spiced with chili peppers, achiote (a flower from which dye is extracted for cooking), honey, and vanilla. Every ingredient played a role in the sensorial experience: the presence of chili warmed the throat, achiote gave color as well as a musky flavor that can be compared to saffron or paprika, the wild bee honey provided sweetness and vanilla and flowers added fragrance.

Among the Mesoamericans chocolate was considered to have a bond with the divine and commonly used for rituals. For instance, they saw a resemblance between cacao and the heart and blood, due to its shape and texture and therefore associated it with fertility and wealthiness. Hence, they would spread cacao with maize and tobacco as an offering to the deities that gave them water and sustenance during the time of planting. During the market feasts they would prepare a luxurious foamy chocolate with a particular flower called “the divine ear” (xochinacaztli, teonacaztli or heinacaztli) which gave the drink resinous spice-flowery notes and induced a mood of joy and the pleasure of being connected to their deities. On a social level,chocolate symbolized the exchange of blood in marriages between two families. Another remarkable fact is that chocolate making was exclusively the woman’s duty and as such, it was an important talent at the time of marriage (Coe & Coe 1996). Overall, the customs surrounding chocolate reflected the Amerindian relationship with nature and the spiritual world. In the same way, the sensations provided by chocolate (the enjoyable moods and altered states of mind) defined social affairs: from festivities and community gatherings, to business and family matters. 

During the 15th century, cacao was brought to Europe. Initially, the Spaniards adopted the Amerindian ways of consuming it, mainly the whole variety of cacao beverages, and used them to enhance their mood (Norton, 2008). Thus, Atole (a cacao and maize concoction) was the most common preparation when they wanted something refreshing and uplifting, but they also started to develop new mixtures by adding sugar and spices imported from the East Indies: cinnamon, black pepper, anise, and sesame seeds, among others. During the first years of chocolate’s diffusion, the Spanish controlled the importation of cacao and the products used to enhance the drink. Other related goods were imported, such as the molinillo (the wooden beater to get foam) and special clay vessels or xícaras. The trades marked the beginning of other (social) uses of chocolate among the Europeans: to create social bonds or status. Furthermore, chocolate entered rituals of erotic interaction and as such figured in poems, paintings, and regalos (gifts) mainly among those who could afford such luxurious goods.

Although the Spanish tried to keep the developing cacao and chocolate industry to themselves, the new "taste" promptly found its way to the rich and wealthy of other countries. When Dutch and English pirates realized the value of the cacao bean, they got involved in the trade. After establishing a base in Curacao, Dutch merchants came to dominate the entire trade in cacao beans; and Amsterdam developed into the most important cacao port in the world during the seventeenth century. Thus, the Dutch also brought the seeds to the East Indies: Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Java. and Sumatra. Soon after, some scientific discoveries and innovations related to the Industrial Revolution completely transformed chocolate production and consumption. Between1815 to 1828, the Dutch chemist Conrad van Houten created a hydraulic press that removes the natural fat from the cacao bean. This way, the cacao mass could be divided into cacao powder and cacao butter. Thereafter, he developed the process of alkalinization to soften the bitter taste and make it easier for cacao to be mixed with water. This is called “The Dutching process” and its invention soon led to the creation of solid edible chocolate (Poelmans & Swinnen, 2016). The boom of chocolate-inspired different countries to create their own brands and inventions, such as Switzerland (where the tempering method and white chocolate were invented) and Belgium (where the Callebaut company came up with the chocolate couverteur).

Nowadays, the versatility of chocolate and its properties has taken different nuances on its uses. In perfumery, for instance, chocolate it’s been an inspiration for many formulas but in the same way the olfactory experience has been recreated through scents that evoked chocolate such as vanilla, coffee and even civet, –for dark chocolate (Mettler, 2020). Furthermore, from a more contemporary artistic perspective, we got introduced to the work of Anat Ratzabi, an Israelí artist based in The Hague. She has been using chocolate for her artwork, inspired by the Mayan and Aztecs’ chocolate association with delightful and ritualistic experiences. Likewise, Anat realized that chocolate is a material that can be easily manipulated in liquid form and yet remain compact in its solid form, due to its flexible chemical qualities. Hence, Anat’s artistic concept aims to explore a more dialogic/performative relation between the materiality of chocolate and its elicitation of emotions and meanings through the senses. This unique correlation has taken Anat 2D reliefs/paintings and sculptures by using a mixture of dark tempered (Callebaut) chocolate cast and adding hints of edible bronze among other materials (Ratzabi, 2020). This way, during her life-sculpture workshops. she arouses the corporeal and sensorial, at times decadent, associations with chocolate. In other words, Anat aims to highlight chocolate’s timeless attribute: the enjoyable experience and (social) connections that it evokes since the Amerindian times.