Yucatán stakes its claim as the chocolate capital of the world

There's an effort to make Yucatán the center of the chocolate world again.
There’s an effort to make Yucatán the center of the chocolate world again.

European techniques have combined with Mayan traditions to produce one of the best chocolates in the world.

The Maya were the first to discover cocoa. as early as 900 AD.

They learned that the beans inside the cocoa pods could be harvested and made into a liquid that would become a treasured Mayan treat.

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Ki’ Xocolatl’s Belgian-born owner, Mathieu Brees, settled in Yucatán 16 years ago to apply his professional knowledge as a master chocolatier.

Brees came to the right place to unleash his creativity and passion for developing the cacao bean. And he chose the right name for his business: Ki’ Xocolatl means “rich and delicious chocolate” in Nahuatl.

The development and consumption of Mexican chocolate is, in many regions of the country, a thousand-year-old Maya tradition married with Belgian chocolate-making techniques.

According to legend, chocolate originated in Mexico when the God Quetzalcoatl gave men the cocoa tree, which years later would be baptized with the name Theobroma Cacao, which means “food of the gods” in Greek.

In Mexico, the main producers of cocoa are the states of Tabasco and Chiapas, and in smaller quantities, Oaxaca, Guerrero and Veracruz.

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The international magazine National Geographic Traveler surveyed chocolate around the world, and Ki’ Xocolatl ranked second. In its June European edition, Ki Xocolatl was described as “handcrafted chocolate of high finesse with a Criollo cacao flavor in whose elaboration traditional products of the Mayan region are used.”

Ki’ Xocolatl’s cacao beans come from the Criollo tree, which is native to Central and South America as well as the Caribbean islands and Sri Lanka. Only 5 percent of the world’s chocolate production is Criollo.

Criollos are particularly difficult to grow because they are extremely vulnerable to a variety of environmental threats.

The beans have a white to pale pink color and their taste is described as delicate yet complex, low in “classic” chocolate flavor, but rich in secondary notes of long duration. Considered to be the “prince of cocoas,” Criollo is a prized ingredient in the finest chocolates.

Ki’ Xocolatl beat makers of fine chocolates from Canada, Hungary and Luxembourg. (The first place rank went to England’s Paul A. Young.) The brands in the list were unaware they were of the poll until it was published.

Brees collaborates with Maya farmers to grow the beans in the heart of the Yucatán peninsula. At its plantation near Uxmal, they yield 200 tons per year of the finest cocoa. The artisanal chocolate can include ingredients such as baked corn chips, peppers and almonds. They also make hot chocolate and cocoa-based spa products such as chocolate shampoo, lotions and soap.

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The five winning brands agree that in their production processes, they use artisanal techniques and fine cocoa, taking advantage of the region’s own elements that make them stand out.

In the words of Mathieu Brees: “… we are growing cocoa in lands where it was never thought possible, and a Belgian chocolatier did not do it. It was possible for the people who worked the land, cultivated it and harvested the fruits, this is a job of all, something that Yucatán brings to the world.”

The term “cacao” comes from the Olmecs who pre-dated the Maya, according to the Choco-Story Museum at Uxmal.

But it was the Maya who came up with chocolate — both the name and the drink.

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Combining the words chokoh, meaning hot, and ha, meaning water, Maya chocolate was a drink that mixed ground-up cacao with chili, vanilla and other spices. There was no sugar available to the ancient Maya.

To the Maya, cacao was a gift from the gods and they drank it for religious ceremonies. Beans were also their currency. A rabbit cost 10 beans, a slave 100.

When the Spanish first encountered Maya cocoa, one of Hernán Cortés’ conquistadors called it “a bitter drink for pigs.”

But Cortés brought the cacao mixture back to Spain, where they added cane sugar, which turned it to what Cortés called “a divine drink which builds up resistance and fights fatigue.”

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It quickly became a favorite in the Spanish court, then swept through Europe and eventually the world.

Today most cacao is grown in Africa and Indonesia. Less than 2 percent is grown in Mexico. But the vestiges of the cacao culture remain, and there’s an effort to make the Yucatán the center of the chocolate world again.

Sources: La Revista Peninsular, Godiva Chocolate, Los Angeles Times

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