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She’s a tease. There’s no doubt about it. “No, not yet, you have to wait until I’m done first, please,” she entreats. While the foreplay is interesting, and sensuous to the extreme, I want to jump right in – and get at the three young mezcals, with 18 chocolates set up in front of them.
The evening was billed a mezcal and chocolate pairing event, or a maridaje in local parlance, held at Restaurante La Olla in downtown Oaxaca. It was hosted by owners Chef Pilar Cabrera and Ing. Luis Espinoza, and their special guest, chef/chocolatier Arcelia Gallardo. Mezcal brands Koch and Vago were featured.
Of course Chef Gallardo simply wanted polkadot chocolate australia us to hold off delving into her enticing chocolates alluringly set in front of us, with water at the ready and three mezcals in the wait. The idea was to direct us when to sample what, in the course of her discourse.
This was more than a mezcal and chocolate combining encounter. It was a treatise on the history of cacao, a lesson on the production of chocolate, and a discussion of its different formulations based on country / continent of origin. In addition, of course, there was the main focus, learning an appreciation of different mezcals as paired with a variety of chocolates. Each chocolate had been hand-crafted that very day by Chef Gallardo using Oaxacan ingredients she had earlier sourced with the assistance of Chef Pilar.
“I came to Oaxaca principally to learn about the region’s unique flavors and ingredients, with a view to experimenting with how I could incorporate what I discovered into my chocolate,” she explained.
Yes, the packed house learned about chocolate’s Mesoamerican origins, the differences between South American, African and American cacao concoctions, what exactly white chocolate is, why chocolate melts in your mouth (and in fact in your hands), and tasting notes relative to each sample devoured. But for me, a mezcal aficionado and researcher for in excess of two decades, what struck home most were the elements in common between and contrasted with cacao and chocolate on the one hand, and the iconic Mexican spirit on the other.
Naturally I was interested in everything Chef Gallardo had to say, given that it was all new to me; and who doesn’t have an interest in the wherefores and whys of chocolate? But I continually found myself relating what I was being coached about cacao and chocolate, to mezcal as well as pulque.
The Historical Record
In tracing the use of cacao to the Olmec civilization some 3,000 years ago, our grand maestra noted that residue of the cacao compound theobromine has been found in pottery vessels, evidencing its earliest consumption in Belize and Guatemala. My interest initially piqued recalling that archaeologists in Mexico have found clay pots with traces of alcohol, leading them to theorize about a pre-Hispanic distillation tradition. Many Mexican spirits thinkers take issue with this latter reasoning, primarily because there have not been codices, pictographs and the like found, detailing distillation as a cultural indicia among indigenous groups. The more accepted thinking is that the Spanish learned distillation from the Moors, and subsequently brought this knowledge to The New World, no earlier than in the first quarter of the 16th century.
With her powerpoint presentation Chef Gallardo showed us photographs of various paintings and clay containers, representing a Mayan god embracing a bowl containing cacao; a squirrel holding a pod; cacao vessels in ancient tombs; Aztec glyphs and notations in scriptures; a goddess of cacao; and more. The proponents of pre-Hispanic distillation, by contrast, have not been able to tie together the slight evidence of alcohol, with neither drawings nor stone or clay representations of anything beyond fermentation. Where to date they have failed, the chocolate historians have convincingly succeeded.
Modern Day Manifestations of Commonalities and Contrasts
One of the main positives in common between the production of chocolate and mezcal relates to the concept of bio-diversity and agro-forestry. Chef Gallardo pointed to cacao plantations being suited to multiple crop land use. Cacao can be shaded by allspice and coconut, and cardamom is capable of providing good ground cover. Regarding mezcal production, in between rows of agave and at times growing simply amongst the plants, crops such as alfalfa, garbanzo, corn, beans and squash are frequently found, enabling growers to reap annual rewards while waiting for their principal crop to mature – often eight to ten years after planting, at times much longer.