According to Aztec mythology, the indigenous people of Pre-Columbian Mexico, the Quetzalcoatl god (in the nauhtl language, “feathered snake”) turned himself into a man and came down from heaven to convey his wisdom to men, bringing with him a gift. A plant that he had stolen from the gods, his brothers, who guarded it zealously. This was the cocoa plant (cacahuaquahitl), from which they obtained a drink they thought was only destined for them.
Quetzalcoatl took the small bush away, with its tiny flowers attached to branches with elongated leaves hanging down towards the earth, where it offered its fruits. He planted the small tree in the fields of Tula and asked Tlaloc, the water god, to feed it with rain.
The small tree
The small tree yielded its fruits and Quetzalcoatl ordered the collection of its pods, he toasted the seeds and showed the humans how to grind it and to whisk it with water in drinking bowls, thus obtaining chocolate, which at first was only savoured by priests and nobles.
However, the other gods would not forgive him when they found out that he had shared this divine food with humans, and they took their vengeance by banishing him. Quetzalcoatl had to move away, but in doing so, he confided to his wife a great treasure that he owned. When his enemies learnt of this, they attacked the princess with the hope that she would reveal to them where he kept this fabulous treasure. Despite the threats and torture she did not confess the whereabouts of the treasure, so was finally killed.
Her blood watered and fertilised the ground where she was buried, and according to the express wish of Quetzalcoatl, cocoa trees grew up here, the fruit of which was “bitter like the suffering the princess had experienced for love, strong like the virtue she had displayed in adversity, and slightly red like the blood that she had spilt.
The Mayas and subsequently the Aztecs farmed cocoa in the Pre-Columbian era. Its seeds were used as coins and the drink they prepared with it was reserved for the upper classes. The method of preparation was very varied and they added different flavourings (chilli, honey, fruit, sweetcorn, flowers, vanilla, herbs).
They drank it cold, warm or hot and there is evidence that they also used the fresh bean and the white pulp that envelops it for fermented, mildly alcoholic drinks.
Among the tools they used, was the “metate”, a flat stone with three legs, upon which a cylindrical stone was moved in order to grind the beans, and the cups, ceramic bowls and gourd bowls served not only as drinking vessels, but also to create froth, when the prepared chocolate was poured from shoulder height into the bowl that was placed on the floor.
The western world’s first contact with cocoa was in 1502, during Christopher Columbus’ fourth journey to the West Indies, when he landed on the island of Guanaja in the Caribbean, off the shores of Honduras.
The native chief of the island presented him with the very best of his possessions, including dark oval nuts, explaining that they produced a high vitality and energy drink. However, it was not until 1519, when Hernan Cortes arrived in Mexico, that chocolate was really discovered by Spanish adventurers. The emperor Moctezuma believed him to be a god and offered him the most exquisite drink of the Aztecs in a golden cup.
One can imagine that Hernan Cortes was more interested in the golden cup than in the drink, since in those times it did not have a very pleasant taste, given that it was a mixture of cocoa with ground corn, pepper, various spices and natural aphrodisiacs.
It is not known for certain how cocoa first crossed the Atlantic.