Sunday, 12 August 2012

Chocolate

It's probably fecking obvious to my regular readers that I'm a chile addict. So it's no surprise that chiles, in all their mind-boggling varieties, top my list of favourite indigenous Mexican ingredients.

But when I see a doughy man in a high-vis jacket at my work canteen saying "Nae curry for me, pal", I remember that quite a lot of people (even so-called "well hard" people) can't handle chilli. The same man in the queue at the canteen reminds me that almost everyone in the world loves chocolate. So, much as I love chiles, I have to admit that chocolate is probably Mexico's most popular export. I mean really: where would your life be without it?

Chocolate is called Schokolade in German, chocolat in French, and cioccolato in Italian, but our English word seems to come directly from the Spanish chocolate (pronounced "chocoLAHtay"). And rightly so, as it was the Spanish who introduced it to the rest of the world after they stole it from Mexico.

But like most Mexican-Spanish culinary words, it originally comes from Nahuatl. Xocolatl was a drink the Aztecs made from the cocoa bean. It literally means "bitter water", and anyone who had tasted what Americans call "baker's chocolate" can guess why.

The Aztecs also called this the "drink of the gods", and it's stimulating qualities (it contains caffeine and phenobarbital) made it the drink of choice for warriors before a battle.

Chocolate had been cultivated in what is now Mexico for thousands of years. But two things Mexico didn't have before the Conquista were sugar and a dairy industry. That means their chocolate wasn't anything like our modern chocolate products. It also means it wasn't fattening and didn't contribute to diabetes.

Now, I'm a full-flavour kind of guy. I like strong black coffee, neat whisky (not whiskey, which is different), and dark chocolate. I don't really care for milk chocolate, and I can't stand so-called "white chocolate". So when I learned that Mexican hot chocolate has no milk, I was like "score!" (I had always wanted to try to make hot chocolate without milk, but was afraid it wouldn't work.)

I got this recipe from Thomasina Miers' new book, Wahaca, which you should go out and buy right now of you live in Britain, or even if you don't. Because you most taste this chocolate recipe.

But first a little background. Being a Californian, the concept of Mexican chocolate was already familiar to me. My mom used to make it. Although to be honest, it was basically normal hot chocolate with a bit of cinnamon. (When I say "normal", I mean good quality, high-cocoa-solid chocolate, sweetened and gently melted into warm milk, which was normal for my family. We did not drink Olvaltine.)

Here in Edinburgh, the Metropole on South Clerk Street used to do a Mexican hot chocolate, again with added cinnamon, and if they're reading this PLEASE BRING IT BACK!!!

The combination of chocolate and cinnamon was indeed so familiar to me that I was surprised to learn that cinnamon was not a native Mexican ingredient.

So what is real Mexican chocolate now, if it's no longer the "bitter water" of the Aztecs?

Both the Metropole and my mother used cinnamon, which is correct, but they also used milk, which is not. And (I'm guessing on the Metropole, by the way, but I did used to go there a lot), they both left out a subtle but important ingredient: almonds.

The description of the Oaxacan chocolate "shop" in Wahaca mentions three variations of the ratio of cocoa to cinnamon to ground almonds. Probably this is one of those things that exist in infinitely varied combinations of those three key ingredients. And, of course, sugar.

Chocolate, then, is like mole in that it demonstrates how thoroughly Mexico has blended indigenous and imported cultures. Yes, the chocolate was native, but the cinnamon and almonds were introduced by the conquering Spanish (cinnamon they got from Asia, while almonds, originally from the Middle East, had been known Europe since the Middle Ages at least). They also introduced sugar, for xocolatl was certainly not a sweet drink, but modern chocolate is.

What Mexico still doesn't have a helluva lot of is dairy cows. I've written before how only the north of the country is really suited to cattle, and that these seem to be mainly for meat. While abroad Mexican food invariably comes smothered in melted Monterey Jack cheese (or white cheddar in the UK), most Mexican cheese comes from goats, and you wouldn't want goat's milk in your chocolate. So they just use water.

Now, although I did use Thomasina Miers' recipe, I also tweaked the cinnamon content. She called for only a 5mm cinnamon stick in 450mL of hot chocolate. I'm afraid I like more cinnamon than that, so I used half a stick and wouldn't scoff at using whole one next time.

I won't really repeat her recipe because I think you should buy her book, but basically you grate or chop bar of 70% or higher chocolate, toast and grind 20g of almonds and half a cinnamon stick plus a tablespoon of sugar, and melt it all gently in about a pint of water. Strain it before you drink it. Because all that ground-up goodness makes it a bit gritty if you leave it in.

Some observations on the reality of making this: I grated the chocolate, which makes ideally-sized shavings. Unfortunately it's impossible to stop the chocolate melting in your hand. Chopping a bar of chocolate, though, isn't as easy as it sounds. Next time I might try putting the bar in say plastic bag and bashing it with say rolling pin until it's in splinters. Classy!

Also, Miers doesn't say to do this, but I'm going to go ahead and recommend that you toast the almonds and cinnamon separately, as you would in other recipes, because they have different "toasting times" and you don't want one to burn while waiting for the other one to get some colour.

I would not recommend skipping the toasting entirely. The toasting is another incarnation of the asar technique, which is one of the things that defines Mexican cooking.

Now, finally, the taste: Holy. Fucking. Shit.

I cannot believe that there is something in this world that tastes that good! But the real surprise was how rich it was. It felt like it was coating your tongue in chocolatey silk. As I had always hoped, adding milk is completely unnecessary, unless you want to dilute the chocolate. And why would you want to do that?

In all seriousness, I should warn you that this is an intense flavour experience. If your favourite chocolate bar is Dairy Milk (which is disgusting, but admittedly better than a Hershey bar) you may find this an acquired taste. On the other hand my wife loved it and she's normally into white chocolate.

Another warning: this is fairly high in caffeine and other natural stimulants, so don't drink this before going to bed. I did, but I had some fucked up dreams.

The absence of milk in this chocolate not only means far less fat (this hot chocolate is actually kind of healthy), it also means it's completely vegan! How cool is that?

Basically, this has totally changed how I feel about chocolate. The only thing stopping me making this every day is that it's a bit time-consuming (lots of grating, toasting, and grinding). I'm thinking of trying it with Green & Blacks cocoa powder to save some labour. Also, considering the amount of high quality chocolate this recipe requires, it could be pretty expensive for an everyday drink.

Postscript: I've tried making this recipe using some powdered Green & Blacks chocolate. It did not work. It was way too bitter, even though I doubled the amount of sugar, and the texture was nowhere near as silky and rich. If you want to experience this, a high-cocoa-solid bar of chocolate is the only way to go.

I have, however, managed to capture some photos this time: in the pot and in the mug.