Most people probably think of chocolate as being European, but the cacao bean itself — the bitter seed that gives chocolate its taste — is native to Mexico.
The Mayans were the first to domesticate the crop, thousands of years before the Spaniards arrived. (The name cacao actually comes from the Mayan word kakaw.) Later, Mexica priests and other upper-class Aztecs drank ground cacao as a beverage, mixed with water and spices. The Mexica venerated cacao so much, in fact, that they used it as a currency and imposed a cacao tax on conquered villages.
Yesterday at cooking class, Yuri told us we were going to make chocolate from scratch, in the traditional Mexican way. We’d each grind 1/4 kilo of cacao beans on our metates, drawing out the natural cocoa butter until the beans turned into a thick, glossy liquid.
In keeping with the way the nuns used to make chocolate in Mexican convents, we’d each receive a portable flame to place under our grinding stone. The flame would heat the stone and melt the cacao a bit, making it easier to grind.
I had no idea what lie ahead of me — a common theme in this cooking class — so I kneeled on my straw mat and began grinding with high spirits. The beans crackled and crunched under my metlapil.
We’d toasted the cacao beans in the last class, so pulverizing them produced this nutty, kind of toasted-walnut smell, mixed with aromas of intense dark chocolate.
I stopped grinding for a minute and just inhaled. “Huele riquísimo,” I said. It smells so good! My classmates ignored me and kept grinding.
After about 30 minutes, I’d succeeded in converting one-third of my bag (maybe 50 grams worth of beans) into a soft, chunky mixture. I felt pretty good about it until I looked at the metate of the guy next to me and the guy next to him. Both had turned their cacao into a spreadable butter.
I reminded myself that I was a competitive American, and this class was not about being competitive. We each had our own skills. Some people were just faster than others. (Especially if said people are men more upper-body strength than me… how is it that women were the ones grinding this stuff back in the day?) “Poco a poco,” I told myself. I kept grinding.
Another 30 minutes went by. Drops of sweat started to run down the side of my temples. My chocolate had thinned some, but not much.
Suddenly Yuri interrupted the class.
“Mira, qué brilla!” Look, what shine!
He pointed at the metate of one of my classmates. A glossy, dark-brown pool lay on his tablet, as if someone had taken a chocolate bar, melted it and then poured it right onto his stone. How had this student — a young, skinny guy — done this in one hour?
“Great job,” Yuri told him. “I’m fast on the metate, but not as fast as you.”
The student smiled. He had braces.
I grumbled to myself and kept grinding.
Another 30 minutes passed, and then another. The man on my right finished his chocolate. So did the woman next to him. I had finished grinding all of my beans, but my mixture was thick and cakey and nowhere near the soft-lustrous-pool phase. I started to wonder whether I was just not cut out for this whole metate-grinding thing. Or maybe my technique was wrong. I caught the eye of the guy next to me, who was clearing his work space.
“Así, no?” I asked him, demonstrating my grinding technique. Like this, right? He nodded and smiled. “Ahí va,” he said. It’s coming along.
I didn’t want ahí va, though. I wanted ya estás, which means, you’re done.
Some of the class assistants had set out a jar of agua de limón con chía, so I decided to take a break.
Pain shot through my knees as I attempted to get up from the floor. My legs wobbled. The backs of my knees felt slick with sweat, and my T-shirt was damp. I shuffled the four paces to the jar of agua like an arthritic old woman. A blister was starting to form on my left palm. Why was I doing this to myself?
My mind felt dangerously close to the breaking point. My teachers did not accept short cuts, so it was apparent that I was going to finish my damn chocolate if that meant saying there until 1 a.m. I ignored the voice in my head shouting, “Just ask them if you can use the blender!” and instead pressed my lips together and frowned.
I finished my water and returned to my position of torture. Back on the knees. Grip metlapil. Ignore stinging pain in my left palm.
This time I ground harder, cursing the chocolate as I scraped the metlapil across the tablet. Are you really going to make me stay here all night, chocolate? Are you really going to do this to me?
One of my classmates, a woman I’ve talked to a few times, stopped in front of my work area. She probably noticed my grimace and wanted to help. By now my chocolate looked like the buttery version I’d seen on my neighbor’s metate earlier in class.
“Está caliente?” she said. Is your grinding-stone hot?
I said it was. She leaned down to touch my chocolate, and rubbed it between her fingers.
“This is too grainy,” she said in Spanish. “It’s supposed to be much thinner. Much more shiny.”
It took almost all of my energy not to put my metlapil down and cry, but instead I said sharply: “Yeah I know. What do you want me to do?”
She looked a little bit taken aback. You don’t use sharp tones in Mexico. It’s rude. “Just keep doing what you’re doing,” she said, and she walked away.
I took a deep breath and scraped up my warm paste, and kept grinding. A few minutes later Yuri’s voice interrupted my thoughts.
“Mira qué chulo!” he said. I looked up and realized he was complimenting my chocolate. Mine.
“Mira el brillo!” he said. Look at the shine!
I hadn’t realized it because I’d been too busy sitting under storm clouds, but my chocolate had become a thick, satiny pool. My heart lifted. I took a few more deep breaths and tried to relax my shoulders, and stop gripping the metlapil so darn hard. I thought about how funny it would be if I bottled up this mixture and sent it to my pregnant friends. (“It’s cocoa butter, see? Ha!”) I kept grinding and grinding.
And then, finally… I was done. Arturo, the assistant, stopped by my metate and leaned down to rub a bit of the chocolate between his fingers.
“Ya estás,” he said.
I set my metlapil down and stared. (I couldn’t really do anything else, because my whole body hurt.) I felt like how I used to feel after running a particularly hilly cross-country race in high school — very proud of myself for finishing, even if I didn’t get the best time. My total time clocked on the metate: 2 1/2 hours.
I dipped my finger in the chocolate and tasted. It was bitter and creamy and not particularly fantastic. But on a personal level, it was the most exquisite chocolate I’d ever tasted.
“I’m going to take a picture,” I told Arturo. He kind of laughed. I don’t think he realized the emotional journey I’d just been on.
This is not the best picture, because I had trouble getting my fingers to unclench. But here is my chocolate. We’re going to use it in a recipe next week in class.
Who is Mija?
Mija is Lesley Téllez, a food writer and culinary guide in New York City. I spent four years in Mexico's Distrito Federal, which launched my deep love for Mexican food and culture. In 2010 I co-founded the tourism company Eat Mexico.
Be kind, ask permission!All photos on this site were taken by me, unless otherwise noted. If you'd like to use a photo, please email me.
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