Food History: Hot Chocolate The Ultimate Comfort Drink Then and Now

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Where do our favorite dishes come from? In our ongoing series ‘Food History’ we take a look at classic dishes and their roots. 

At a few cocktail events over winter I discovered that hot chocolate was a sought after drink, set out each time complete with an array of fancy additions like cacao nibs and gourmet sprinkles. Always nice to know that the comfort drink of winter has hit a certain level of chicness.

Hot chocolate has always been the drink of cold days. A warm up after a day of skiing or a pick me up after you get stuck in a downpour. A good (and big) cup of hot chocolate can do wonders for the soul. If it’s made well – thick, creamy, full of dark chocolate – it’s a bit of happiness in a mug.

You’ll find hot chocolate in many parts of the world, and although it seems to be a drink more destined for cold weather locales, its roots actually go back to a warmer region. Archeological evidence suggests that people in Mesoamerica (otherwise known as modern-day Mexico) were cultivating and drinking chocolate as far back as 4,000 years ago. The Aztecs and Mayans both made it into a beverage known as xocolātl, a Nahuatl word meaning “bitter water.”

The Aztecs actually associated chocolate with Xochiquetzal, the goddess of fertility, so chocolate beverages were often used as sacred offerings. In fact, blood and chocolate were both very sacred liquids to the Aztecs, and cacao seeds were used in religious ceremonies to symbolize the human heart.

When Europeans came to the New World, they too were seduced by the warm, chocolatey drink. Christopher Columbus returned to Europe with the first cocoa beans. (Maybe the reason for a recipe for Moctezuma’s Hot Chocolate, a much spicier rendition of the winter classic.) Spanish conquistador Hernam Cortes was so infatuated with the drink, that he wrote a letter to Charles V of Spain calling chocolate: “The divine drink which builds up resistance & fights fatigue. A cup of this precious drink permits man to walk for a whole day without food.”

From the Americas to Spain, the Spanish began adding in sugar and making the drink their own. It eventually made its way up the continent, although at the time was more expensive than coffee, equating chocolate with more southern, Catholic and aristocratic roots, while coffee was seen as more northern, Protestant and middle class.

Even in the early days of the United States chocolate played a role. Thomas Jefferson once said, “The superiority of chocolate, both for health and nourishment, will soon give it the same preference over tea and coffee in America which it has in Spain.”

In 1828 Dutchman Coenraad Johannes van Houten developed a method for extracting the fat from the cocoa beans and in turn made powdered cocoa. This allowed for a new wave of chocolate, and the ultimate distinction between hot cocoa (made with powder) and hot chocolate (made with solid chocolate).

Today the hot chocolate trend is back, allowing for artisan chocolatiers to play with flavor combinations and rigorously sourced cocoa beans. Think small-batch, gourmet and sometimes served in the oddest of ways, like with oysters.

I prefer to go classic.

On a very cold February evening, I was walking in the Marais in Paris and freezing. My fingers were on the verge of numb, and even though in a neighborhood known for its bars and restaurants, a cocktail or a glass of wine wasn’t going to cut it. So at the sighting of a brasserie, I walked in and ordered a chocolat chaud à l’ancienne. A mug arrived, one third of the way full with melted chocolate. A small pitcher of warm milk was served on the side. I was left to mix the two as I pleased.

Now that’s how hot chocolate should be made. I am sure the Aztecs would have approved.

Image: Anna Brones

Anna Brones

Anna Brones is a food + travel writer with a love for coffee and bikes. She is the author of The Culinary Cyclist and Fika: The Art of the Swedish Coffee Break. Catch her weekly column, Foodie Underground.