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Beverages, Chocolate and Atole
Breakfast and brunch are meals usually eaten at different times. The first normally consists in what townsfolk call a beverage. In coastal regions and on the isthmus, the day is usually started with a steaming cup of aromatic coffee. In high zones and valleys, atole (corn starch based beverage) and chocolate are what they usually drink.
The last two are the most common beverages in Oaxaca. The difference between them is substantial, not only because one is made of cocoa beans and the other from corn, but because atole allows itself to be mixed, and chocolate does not. Atole can be mixed with milk, fruit, honeycomb, chilli, and herbs or with a little chocolate, without altering it. It may be consumed with or without sugar. What it does reject, naturally, is bread. Bread with atole is an expression that reveals disdain and refers to a person who is slow, dense and burdensome. Atole’s preferred partners are tamales.
Mixing atole and chocolate has given rise to various beverages. The simplest and most popular is champurrada, but there is another whose refinement and laborious elaboration limit it to special occasions. Such is the case of chocolate atole. With recipes varying from place to place, in general terms, it consists in serving a white atole, covered or crowned with a thick layer of foamy chocolate. This is made with cocoa and white cocoa, which is also called patlaxle - which through a special procedure turns into a chalky seed. - Whole wheat, sugar and cinnamon. After toasting and grinding these ingredients and adding water to them, a paste is formed, which when beaten with a molinillo, forms a coffee-coloured foam with a sophisticated and delicious flavour. This beverage is called bichicña buupu in Tehuantepec, and has several variations. Honeycomb is used instead of sugar and two kinds of flowers are added: the cacalosúchitl, or Mayflower and the istalsúchitl or guie xoba.
Chocolate will not share the limelight with anything but almonds and cinnamon, nor mix with anything but water or milk.
Contrary to atole, its companion of cooking fame, chocolate, is unquestionably the beverage, which must be accompanied by bread. Popular advice is that chocolate should be served very hot only if there is a lot of bread, because as it cools, you run the risk of many dozens of marquesotes and other everyday breads or egg yolk bread being eaten.
The origin of chocolate is very dated. Sahagun mentions it being served at the aristocrats’ table, but the macehuales could only drink it on certain special occasions. We must also remember the astonished quill of Bernal Diaz describing the gold pitchers from which the Emperor Moctezuma was served. Since our Indian ancestors were not familiar with sugar, almonds, or cinnamon, this drink was simply beaten in water and drunk in its bitter state, the original cocoa taste. At times, they would sweeten it with honey. Once again, a fortunate culinary mixture brought a beverage to Oaxacan tables that, even in our own times makes us excel in flavour and aroma among our own and strangers.
It became so popular in colonial times, above all in abbeys and convents, that the bishops’ prominent bellies and double chins were always blamed on this dark beverage. With the appearance of luncheries, restaurants, inns, taverns and gaming houses, where there was always someone to beat the chocolate, growing demands of parishioners of those days were met.
There are no New World writers who do not mention chocolate, attributing it as a sustenance and restorative having even curative properties to dissolve phlegm, as was preached by Friar Jordan de Santa Catalina in Oaxaca during the last part of the 17th century. In public opinion, when this friar, from the Predicadores (Preachers) order died, he was thought to be a saint. He established the first school in Villa Alta, in the Zapotecn Mountains.
The English, always reserved, became familiar with chocolate at the beginning of the 17th century. It seemed like a drink for Indians, as they never thought that within a very few years they would become extremely fond of tea, a truly Indian and Chinese beverage. Paradoxically, an English Dominican, Friar Thomas Gage, praised this beverage highly. Gage, an English Catholic, ordained as a priest in a Dominican convent in Jerez de la Frontera, in Andalucia, came to New Spain with the purpose of going from Mexico to Guatemala, and discovered in detail, during his journey, the life and activities of the places he visited. The entire 19th Chapter in the second part of his work is dedicated to Chocolate and Atole, which are very common beverages in the Indies, and the different manners of preparing them, with the qualities of the ingredients used in their preparation. As he was on his way through Oaxaca, around 1630, he mentioned the City and the bishop, referring to it as a very beautiful and happy town. The entire nineteenth chapter of the second part of his book was dedicated to talking about chocolate and atole, beverages which are very common in the Indies, the different ways of preparing them, with the qualities of the ingredients in their creation. While travelling through Oaxaca, around 1630, he refers to the city and diocese as a very lovely and happy town.
In regard to atole and chocolate, he mentions that the two convents in Oaxaca remember that this is during the first thirty years of the 17th century are renowned for their skill in preparing these two beverages. The atole looks like European almond milk, though of a thicker consistency... they make it with corn or wheat liquid, extracted when the plants are tender... in this way, it not only releases a very delicious aroma, but is nutritious and fortifies the stomach.
In documents of the Royal Hacienda, conserved in the archives of State, it is corroborated that chocolate was packed in boxes and large quantities of the already elaborated product were sent to Spain.
In Oaxaca, chocolate with milk or water, made however the customer wishes, is served in wide-mouthed ceramic bowls, made expressly for dipping or sopping bread. What could be impolite or ill mannered in other societies, has become, among us, part of the way to drink it. So, just as refined Japanese sip their tea noisily, to demonstrate their good manners, in Oaxaca, the use of the verb sop (sopear) must be accepted, raising chocolate sopping to the level of regional social use.
Not only contemporary Oaxacans have sopped chocolate. When Don Artemio del Valle Arizpe narrates, with the elegance of his Baroque Spanish, on the annual feast given mutually between the Franciscan and Dominican monks celebrating their respective patron saints August 4th, Saint Dominic; October 4th, Saint Francis he states that the first thing to be served was a Three Saint Chocolate. This consisted in equal amounts of cocoa, sugar and almonds and the monks would never raise the foamy bowl to their mouths, because they sopped, without stopping, all the empanadas, rosquetes, bollos, panes de duquesa, pasteles nevados, tortas de natas, bizcochos envinados, puchas, panqués and gaznates (different types of Mexican sweet bread), that the nuns had made with their diligent hands in the twilight of their seclusion. As you can see, these things happen, even in the best of families.
Now, chocolate proportions have varied, taking the stomach and pocketbook into consideration. One kilogram (2 1/4 pounds) of cocoa should correspond to two kilograms (4 1/2 pounds) of sugar, a scant 100 grams (3 1/2 ounces) of almonds and the same amount of cinnamon. This is all ground together in a mortar, but in a certain order. First, the cinnamon is ground, then the cocoa and toasted almonds, then blending all these ingredients together finally with the sugar. A low flame is placed between under the metate (mortar), kneading the paste several times with the hands or "metlapil" (a stone utensil) to give it a homogenous and pasty texture.
Perhaps, it could be affirmed that chocolate is the pioneer of our foreign trade. It is the first elaborated Mexican product known to the world. Chocolate, Oaxacan powder, conquered the Spanish palate, and later, that of all Europe. The Spanish princesses, Ana and Teresa of Austria, daughter and granddaughter of Felipe III, who married Louis XIII and Louis XIV of France, took it to that country. Queen Maria Teresa had such a passion for chocolate that, in spite of the fact that the ladies of her court blamed her bad teeth on its excessive use, she insisted in eating it in hiding. Evil tongues wagged, saying that thanks to her craving, she had taken up residence in Paris, a city very given to drinking these powders that arrived from America. It is said that Voltaire liked to drink chocolate and that Goethe, who heard of it from Humbold, enjoyed serving it to his friends.
Oaxacan historians, such as Martinez Gracida have told us about the peaceful everyday life of Oaxaca in the 19th century. We know, because of him, that the Cathedral clock controlled the entire life of those living in the city. Some initiated their religious duties at three in the morning, when they would go to recite the rosary at the Santo Domingo de Guzman temple, a devout practice carried out while making a thirty minute procession around the convent. These early morning religious practices were followed with a comforting cup of chocolate. Not doubting the religious faith of many, some may have risen at this hour more for the chocolate than for the devotion.
At twelve o’clock, after praying the angelus, and being advised by the bells, they would eat a little fruit, and eat later, at two o’clock in the afternoon.
The custom of drinking very thick chocolate made with water in the middle of the afternoon was preserved until very recent times. This was accompanied by a piece of bread made of lard. In some well-to-do families, the porcelain mugs in which this refreshment was usually served still exist. Social visits were made at this time of day and on occasions, tertulias (social gatherings) or dances would take place, where the guests would be given sweet pastries and biscuits served with sherry or cherry or rose anisette liqueurs.
As can be seen, this beverage has been linked to Oaxaca since pre Colombian times, acquiring fame during the Colonial period and is a symbol that identifies and defines us to this day.
How right was Brillat-Savarin, the famous patriarch of French cuisine when he pitied the Greek for not knowing the comforting sweetness provided by chocolate.
But the subject of chocolate would not be complete, if we do not mention bread. Bread is the centrepiece of Oaxacan tables. Bread from different parts of the state is brought home from the plaza (marketplace) in simple baskets. Yellow bread or de la Villa (town bread) is famous and is named because it is baked in the Villa de Etla. It is said that a roundish grain of wheat, which grew in abundance in that region, was used many years ago in the elaboration of this bread. Yellow bread is made of whole wheat and from this same dark flour and according to the shape it is given, is called, muertitos, tortitas, tarazones or molletes. There are also other versions called hojaldras and pelonas. Lard bread is more of a dandy’s fare, while the voices of cooks or housewives asking for roscas de ajonjolí, regañadas, azucenas or capotes (other sweet rolls) can still be heard in the neighbourhood shops. Bakers from some time ago carried their merchandise in large baskets. They would go around to homes in the afternoon selling orejas, rejitas, finos, costras, tacos, canillas, polcas or limas to accompany the cup of chocolate preceding afternoon prayer.
Santo Domingo Tomaltepec, a town near the city, is the land of bakers. Their specialities are panes de yema and panes resobados (varieties of sweet rolls) that show off their wonderful roundness on feast days, especially on All Saints’ Day and Day of the Dead. The difference between the two is that the first is kneaded, or should be kneaded with only the egg yolks, and no other liquid. Bread of the Dead is a close relative to the other. These breads worked in a wooden trough, and are beaten by hand until the dough reaches the correct consistency and is baked in simple adobe and brick ovens. They are decorated with well made-up women’s faces wearing tiaras made of silver powder, making them easily recognisable. Pan bread from Tlacolula is similar to the Four Peaks variety from Miahuatlan, and both contain lard and cinnamon, though the former usually has small pieces of chocolate. In San Antonino, near Ocotlán, delicious bread in the shape of sheep, with their horns and hooves decorated in a flour and water paste.
Other famous Oaxacan beverages have a high alcohol content (aguardiente and mezcal). Tepache and pulque (fermented juice of agave or maguey plants) are also drunk, and refreshing drinks include "tejate" and their famous natural fruits beverages.
Pulque was a highly consumed alcoholic beverage, whose production in the Colonial period was so important, that taxes paid for this reason merited separate accounting system in the Royal Hacienda.
It is therefore pertinent to remember that in our native towns, drunkenness was a severely punished vice. Alcoholic beverages such as pulque could not be drunk by the townspeople, as it was strictly reserved for the noble class and old people. Juan B. Carriedo, in his Estudios históricos y estadísticos del Estado Libre de Oaxaca (Historical and Statistical Studies of the Free State of Oaxaca), written in 1849, points out that if the townspeople were to drink pulque, it was mandatory to ask for permission, which was not always conceded. This would give way to satiation with uncontrolled voracity, which to this day is habitual and excessive in them, being surely their primary passion.
Production of mezcal (alcoholic drink made of the maguey plant) is currently increased. It is exported to various countries and recognised throughout the world. It has already received its certificate of origin.
Tepache is a fermented mixture of pulque, honey comb and fruit. Pineapple is usually employed, though at times, and according to the town, apples or other fruit may be used. It is common in the Central Valley region and is always present in traditional celebrations such as weddings, parish functions and others.
Tejate is a very important beverage in Oaxacan gastronomy. Much like tepache, it has been consumed since Pre-Hispanic times. Carriedo, a book on beverages, describes one as a cold drink made of ground cocoa, and dissolved in corn water. Another is described as made of rotten, crushed fruit mixed with maguey wine. The former is obviously very similar to our present day tejate and the latter, to tepache.
During the last century, it was called chone, and was prepared by grinding tlaciahual, straining it and cooking it. One half of a mamee seed, toasted and ground with achiote (annatto), toasted and ground husked cocoa beans and sugar, letting it all cook well. Today, corn, cocoa, mammee seed, and a flower called florecita or rosita de cacao (little flower or pink cocoa flower), though it really has nothing to do with the cocoa tree, but another particularly green and beautiful tree. It is an extraordinarily refreshing drink, whose preparation must be scrupulously clean, as it curdles if not.
Jorge Fernando Iturribarria also thinks that tejate was used in ceremonies and was given special relevance, as it was drunk only on the day that corn crops were planted or harvesting begun.
At the present time, this beverage is quite common among country dwellers in the Valley, and the women often take it to the fields for mid-morning refreshment and nourishment.
Natural fruit beverages deserve a separate chapter. There are many refreshing drinks and people who make them, but the aguas de Casilda (Casilda’s refreshing beverages) are in a class by themselves. Anybody who thinks about something refreshing thinks about Casilda. She is known to many as Casilda Flores, daughter of Luisa Morales and granddaughter of Petrona Contreras, but to the thirsty, she is just Casilda. Standing or sitting on the modest benches inside the old Oaxacan market, in front of the green Atzompa kettles, one can hear, two horchata with prickly pear, three sapodilla, one plum, constantly, in search of the multi-coloured liquids that taste like watermelon, pineapple, sapodilla, or cantaloupe, going through all the beads of a fruit rosary, avidly being prayed by parched throats.
I come from a long line of fruit drink makers, she tells us. My grandmother sold chilacayote (gourd plant) and pineapple beer when the comet passed overhead in 1882. When we moved over to this market, the buildings hadn’t been built and we used to be charged three cents for a permission to sell. My Aunt Maria Gonzalez showed me how to make cantaloupe and almond horchata (orgeat). Later, I started to use seasonal fruits.
Like a modern goddess of refreshing water, the imposing Casilda tirelessly raises the pitcher or ladle to fill parishioners’ glasses with her delicacies.
The black sapodilla drink has a special preparation method. It has sherry, orange juice, nuts and ground cinnamon. We make it from peaches in syrup with grated lime, soursop (custard apple) with almonds and many others.
Before we had ice, the kettles had to be placed in boxes of wet sand. We planted chia (sage) in them and everything around the box was green.
I started doing this when I was fourteen years old. Right now, I’m seventy-three, so I’ve been selling my products for almost sixty years.
She also tells how prominent people from national and international governments have been included among her clientele. What she does not mention, modestly, is that the City honoured her in a ceremony during which not only her satisfied customers, but also grateful students expressed their admiration for the woman and refreshment maker.
The chilacayote drink deserves special mention. Sweetened with honeycomb and mixed with pineapple pulp, cinnamon sticks, and lime peel, the chilacayote turns into an amber delight without classification, because it is too light for a dessert, and too thick to be a simple drink. Its freshness and refreshing qualities are interrupted when a spoon must be used to lift the delicate fibres to the mouth. No wonder they are called angel hair in Spain, removing the black, seed eyes.
City dwellers and tourist face the intense heat of Lent by drinking these wonderful Oaxacan fruit concoctions in the markets. On the Fourth Friday, Samaritan Friday, just before Holy Week, schools, shops, and offices interrupt their labour, overwhelming as a result of the heat, to refresh themselves with these traditional beverages, converting that time of year into a true festival.