Mexico is the birthplace of chocolate. The story goes that the Mayan god Quetzalcoatl presented his people with a gift from the garden of paradise: the cacao tree from which chocolate is made. Nowhere in Mexico is chocolate held in higher esteem than in Oaxaca – it is said that every man woman and child in this city in southern Mexico consumes chocolate at least once a day.
Mary Stucky went to Pilar Cabrera, a native of Oaxaca and a well-known chef, to learn the secrets of making a special kind of Mexican hot chocolate known as chocolate atole. They start on a busy street in the center of town – where for blocks around the air is rich with the smell of chocolate.
The following is a transcript of Mary Stucky’s radio report. To listen to this broadcast, please click on the play button above.
Mary Stucky: Mina street is where people in Oaxaca come, almost every day, to get the ingredients for the many delicious chocolate dishes Oaxaca is known for. Chocolate shops – many have been in the same families for generations – line the busy street for blocks. My guide today is chef Pilar Cabrera. We’re at “Chocolate Mayordomo,” one of the very first chocolate stores to open in Oaxaca. We’re buying the raw ingredients for chocolate atole, perhaps the most popular form of hot chocolate in Mexico.
Pilar Cabrera: “Here we have in front of us, cacao, cinnamon, almonds and sugar. I prefer more proportion of almonds and less sugar. This is the flavor I learned from my grandmom. We order right now the most expensive.”
Mary Stucky: “Ok, so she is putting these cacao beans, like big coffee beans, on an old fashioned scale and weighing them in a big metal dish.”
Mary Stucky: After we buy the ingredients we cross the street to where the grinders are. About half a dozen work in one huge shop whose doors are open to the busy street. Ancient grinding machines pulverize the cacao beans, almond, sugar and cinnamon. And then men mix the ingredients into a paste by hand using a knife.
Pilar Cabrera: “Right now they offer us chocolate. One is for you.”
Mary Stucky: “Yum. Now that is smooth. Oh, boy. Hmm. Wow.”
Mary Stucky: Now, even though we have the chocolate paste , flavored with almonds, cinnamon and sugar, we’re not going to make our own chocolate atole today. Instead we’ll take a short taxi ride to the market to join in a morning ritual in Oaxaca. This market is right next door to the school Pilar attended as a child.
Pilar Cabrera: “And we used to come into the market almost every day.”
Mary Stucky: “And you had chocolate every day?”
Pilar Cabrera: “Yeah. And for me my best place is in the corner. Comedor Mary.”
Mary Stucky: “Comedor Mary has been here since you were a little girl with the same family?”
Pilar Cabrera: “Yeah the same family and they prepare the very best chocolate we have here in the city. We call it Chocolate atole.“
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Mary Stucky: Pilar greets the proprietor, Maria Ramirez Vasquez. The 70 year old wearing an apron and long braids, stands in front of a huge pot – inside dried corn is boiling in water. This is the corn atole – the base ingredient in the hot chocolate drink.
Pilar Cabrera: “People cook the dried corn one day in advance and this water thick, thick atole because boiling and boiling and in the end combined with the chocolate and a lot of cinnamon.”
Mary Stucky: But there’s a special way in which the thick corn and the chocolate are combined.
Pilar Cabrera: “And use the molinillo to bring foamy on the top of the chocolate.”
Mary Stucky: The molinillo is a foot long wooden whisk. It’s a lot of work to use it. There’s no milk in this drink but even without it, Maria whips up a substantial foam. The foam is said to contain the energy of the person who made the drink. That person must be a woman whose worth as a cook is determined by how much foam she can create. Maria tells Pilar she makes 30 liters of chocolate atole every day to sell in the market – that’s a lot of whisking.
Pilar Cabrera: “And in the end serve in a big bowl with a wooden spoon. We stir the mixture and then…we drink…and I feel the delicious flavor of the chocolate and the combination with the corn atole is great. Do you want to try?”
Mary Stucky: “Mmm… Nothing like our hot chocolate. This isn’t so sweet. And no milk in this.”
Mary Stucky: Time to go – chocolate atole is a breakfast drink and the morning is passing. As we leave , we spot two school girls, heads bent over huge bowls of Dona Maria’s hot chocolate. The girls say they start each day with a bowl of chocolate atole just like countless generations before them.