Mexico's Love for Chocolate

Mexico's national emblem as made by Chocolate Rocio.

This is the first in an occasional series of blog posts on Mexican cacao and chocolate culture by FCCI Latin American Cultural Exchange Fellow José López Ganem. José is an emerging academic on Mexican cacao and chocolate conducting interdisciplinary research drawing on the fields of history, culture, public policy, trade, and sensory analysis. He has presented his work at several scholarly forums such as Harvard University, Boston University, the Culinary Institute of America, and European Business School Paris, among others. He is also an instructor for the Cacao Grader Intensive, a curriculum developed by FCCI. His professional experience includes work in cultural and food studies, as well as an engaged period in the food industry in New York City. He graduated magna cum laude from the Culinary Institute of America in 2018. Find him on Twitter at @JoseLGanem.

Every February we celebrate those close to our hearts. In anticipation, the global chocolate industry prepares ample supply of heart-shaped goodies - love materialized. Sharing delicious food is Mexican tradition; however, beyond our good friends and lovers, the most-gifted Valentine’s product also has an intimate relation to our culture: chocolate.   

2020 marks 500 years of uninterrupted commercial exchange between the Iberian Peninsula and Mesoamerica. Cacao, chocolate’s raw material, traces its New World-Old World expansion history to the first ship that left New Spain bound for Old Spain. While Mexico can’t claim the genetic origin of cacao and must share credit for the development of Pre-Columbian cacao-based recipes with Central America, our ports supported the debut of cocoa as a globally popular commodity. Demand from Europe quickly spread agriculture of cacao around the Atlantic region. Within the first 100 years of Spanish colonial rule of Mesoamerica, the Pope drank chocolate, priests debated whether it interrupted religious fasting, and Inquisition officials sought penalties for those who exploited the “magical” benefits of its consumption. This was not an uncomplicated expansion, characterized by violence and greed as it was; massive social, economic, and environmental change and inequality underpins this supply chain.

Chocolate became a favorite aphrodisiac for our Valentine dates and its relation to Mexican culture remains a point of pride year-round. However, the state of our national cocoa industry reflects chocolate's complex history and not simply our purported love for chocolate. Africa currently provides 75% of the global cocoa supply - mostly Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana - accounting for approximately 3.7 million metric tons in 2018. Mexico’s 2017 cocoa production oscillated between 22,000 and 25,000 metric tons - less than 0.5 % of global supply. Beyond the complex problems of accessing the market in the global cocoa trade, Mexico faces unique challenges - plant disease, competition with more profitable crops or land use, insecurity, and heavy politicization of the sector, to name a few. These have combined to position Mexico as a non-competitive producer of cocoa worldwide. This may come as a surprise when compared to our demand for chocolate: our country requires over 100,000 metric tons of cocoa to supply internal consumption yearly. Where’s that additional cocoa coming from? The answer is uncertain, since transparency in the sector is rare, but evidence often points us to the large producers of South America.

Despite challenges, Mexicans remain proudly active in promoting their relationship with cacao and chocolate, a model that many other cocoa-producing countries could emulate. At home, many Mexican’s daily routines kick off without a visit to neighborhood tamale stands with champurrado, a type of atole made from chocolate discs or powder. Our elites negotiate terms over a concha con nata and chocolate de taza at Mexico City’s El Cardenal. On visits to Chiapas and his native Tabasco, President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador tweets about pozol, a cacao and corn drink from southeastern Mexico. Our diplomats abroad promote chocolate as well, like Melba Pria - ambassador to Japan - who presents mole as our version of curry and Maria de los Angeles Arreola - ambassador to Ghana - who celebrates in West Africa the diversity of Mexican gastronomy. 

To continue our patriotic chocolate tradition, explore very special options for gifting this Valentine’s Day. To make chocolate from scratch, order cacao from Tabasco’s Agrofloresta Mesomericana. Or try ready-made chocolate bars from Monterrey’s Cuna de Piedra, or Mexico City-based Chocolate Rocio or TA.CHO, for an elevated experience of Mexico’s remaining cocoa production. For fine patisserie, look to Caramela in Monterrey and CDMX’s Tout Chocolat or Numa Xocolat. Mexico City residents can visit MUCHO Museo Chocolate for sensory delight near Paseo de la Reforma and sip chocolate drinks together at La Rifa in the trendy neighborhoods of La Roma and Coyoacan. Find dozens of Mexican bean-to-bar chocolate products in Mexico City at Central Cacao, under the administration of ArteFacto, an artisan products collective. Reserve a romantic table for two at Rosetta, where Chef Elena Reygadas uses Hoja Santa chocolate from Chocolate Rocio in her desserts, and follow it with cacao-rich cocktails at Licoreria Limantour. For servingware, buy a molinillo handcrafted by the team of Arteollin Alonso, whose work was recently featured in the Wall Street Journal and at Harvard University, and complement it with Oaxaca-made pottery from Muy Mexicanas.

Coby Unger of MIT Hobby Shop (left), Juan Alonso Rodriguez (center) and Esteban Alonso (right) of Arteollin Alonso, assembling a wooden lathe.

Adventure-seekers can travel to DRUPA for a gastro-focused tour of a cacao plantation in Tabasco or engage with the cultural heritage of San Cristobal de Las Casas by visiting Kakaw Museo del Chocolate. Tabasco is home to two large players, historical hacienda cacao producers with chocolate making businesses. They are Haciendas Jesus Maria and La Luz, today selling chocolate under the brands Cacep and Wolter, respectively. If you’re a Mexican living abroad, consider picking up a disk from Taza Chocolate, Mexican-style chocolate made in the United States. For Francophiles, visit Bonnat in the Alpine town of Voiron for some of the most exclusive chocolate bars made with cacao of Mexican origin. Across the Atlantic, find examples of the Mexican tradition-inspired chocolate a la taza in Las Ramblas, Barcelona, or cioccolato di Modica in Sicily. Across the Pacific, Minimal Chocolate in Japan produces bars with the rough texture of chocolate de mesa and Filipino tablea chocolate products will be very familiar, since the latter were developed under Spanish rule, the first cacao plant in the area arrived from Acapulco. None of these foreign products use Mexican cocoa, but they all draw their inspiration from our traditions.

All of the above are indicative of the longstanding relationship between Mexicans and our chocolate culture worth celebrating on Valentine’s Day.