If a nation’s cuisine is the key to its heart, then chocolate is the portal to Mexico’s soul. Almost 4,000 years ago its indigenous tribes were among the first in the world to cultivate cacao and turn the bitter beans into delicious things to eat and drink. Not for no reason was a popular chocolate bar in the 1970s named Aztec.
Other of course followed suit, and rival cacao-producing countries in Central and South America have taken the limelight over the past 20 years, supplying quality beans for the world’s booming artisan chocolate market.
Now, Mexico is seeking to reclaim its gastronomical gift to the world, with its cacao producers striving to prove their beans are up there with the best, and a new generation of chocolatiers joining the craft/gourmet chocolate revolution (bar of Montezuma’s Sea Dog with dark chocolate sea salt and lime anyone?)
Today, there’s no better way to explore the country than to follow the scent of chocolate. My own sweet voyage of discovery leads me to Hacienda Cacaotera Jesús María, a lush 50-hectare cacao plantation and chocolate factory in Tabasco, an under-visited state in Mexico’s south-east.
The very charming “cacao ambassador”, Florencio Sánchez Rodriguez, who guides visitors around the plantation, explains the process of making chocolate from “tree to bar”. He urges me to taste the tangy white pulp that envelops the beans nestling inside the pods, then escorts me deep into the jungle where shade-loving cacao flourishes under a canopy of banana, mango and rubber trees. Like most chocoholics, I’ve never seen the raw ingredients before, and the alien-like pods that grow directly out of the tree trunks are a revelation. “The trees are like humans, they need love,” Florencio says, cradling a burnished cacao pod in his hands.
Jesús María is one of a cluster of beautiful, colonial-style cacao plantations, or haciendas, near Comalcalco (a town about 35 miles/56km from Tabasco’s capital Villahermosa) that are proudly opening their doors to the public to boost domestic and international interest in Mexican chocolate. Over the past decade, Mexican cacao production has fallen by 50 per cent, in part due to old and diseased cacao trees and farmers clearing their plantations to make way for palm oil, maize and livestock. As a result, the cradle of chocolate has been importing much of its cacao from Africa and mostly processing it into ingredients for drinks.
But there are signs of a chocolate renaissance in Mexico. Jesús María is working hard to preserve and rescue ancient strains of the highly prized criollo variety of cacao beans, and turning them into bars of eating chocolate. And nearby Hacienda La Luz, an exquisite plantation with fragrant gardens and a beautifully tiled courtyard in the main building, is winning international awards for its high-quality chocolate bars and bombóns.
Tour operators and hotels in Villahermosa organise visits to the plantations, but roads are now signposted to make Tabasco’s “cacao trail” easy to explore independently by car. It’s a lovely option. The journey might be a little bumpy but the landscape is a picture; the roads are flanked by trees flowering scarlet, pink and yellow, and dotted with stalls selling tropical fruit and pozol, the state’s ubiquitous cacao drink.
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Tabasco is heaven for food lovers. Cocina Chontal is a delightful wooden cabin in the jungle serving authentic dishes cooked over fire in an open kitchen. Founder Nelly Cordova Morillo is determined to preserve authentic Tabasco cuisine, and makes chocolate from scratch – grinding the beans herself – to enrich her excellent mole sauces. In Comalcalco, a town untroubled by tourism, Restaurant de Yuli also serves tasty local specialities, including chocolate-spiked mole sauces and desserts. And with a car you can include the ancient Mayan archaeological site, located a mile or so from Comalcalco, in your itinerary.
Next stop on my chocolate mission is the city of Oaxaca, capital of the state of the same name. Cacao isn’t grown here, but its location on an ancient trading route means chocolate is a fundamental part of daily life, and ancient techniques are still used to make drinks consumed thousands of years ago. At Tierra Antigua restaurant and gallery in Teotitlán del Valle, a peaceful village 45 minutes’ drive from the city, Carina Santiago Bautista cooks sublime Oaxacan food and teaches visitors how to make chocolate atole, a creamy festive drink featuring fermented white cacao beans. “It’s such a special drink from our ancestors,” Carina explains as she grinds the ingredients on a metate, a hot flat stone, before mixing the paste with water and whisking it with a molinillo to produce a highly prized froth.
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At Chocolate de la Villa Real in Zaachila, a quiet village 20 minutes from Oaxaca, Genoveva Yolanda Martinez Peralta is also working to preserve traditional ways. The factory makes chocolate with machinery but she demonstrates ancient techniques for visitors – on her hands and knees, grinding cacao beans, cinnamon, almonds and sugar on a metate – the same way she has done it for almost 50 years. She learned the technique from her mother, who would let her ride on the back of her legs when she was a baby, as she went about her arduous business of making chocolate. “At all the important life events you drink chocolate,” Genoveva says, adding that she knows the paste is ready when it “shines like a mirror”.
Nowhere else in Mexico are there more opportunities to sample chocolate than in Oaxaca – although not necessarily in the form we recognise in the UK. Chocolate bars for eating tend to be grainier, as they are filled with cinnamon and ingredients like almonds, but delicious just the same. Street stalls and market stands offer a profusion of hot and cold cacao beverages, including tejate, an ancient drink made from toasted maize and fermented cacao, topped with a creamy foam. Benito Juárez Market is an excellent place to buy cacao-rich mole paste that adds a smoky kick to stews and soups.
I find myself drawn along Mina Street, a buzzing thoroughfare in the centre of architecturally stunning central Oaxaca, by the smell of cacao issuing from chocolate shops such as Mayordomo. Here, Oaxacans buy their favourite chocolate blends in bulk and I watch transfixed as they’re made to order. Cacao beans, almonds, cinnamon and piloncillo (unrefined sugar) are fed into grinding machines and emerge as a rich aromatic paste, destined for chocolate drinks. I buy a bag of this luscious stuff to take home, so I can enjoy the taste of Mexico, new and ancient, long after my trip is over.
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Aeromexico (aeromexico.com) flies directly from London Heathrow to Mexico City from about £720 return, and from Mexico City to Villahermosa (Tabasco) and Oaxaca from about £100 and £180 respectively.
Contact the Tabasco Tourist Authority (Sergio López Garcia, firstname.lastname@example.org) or Operadores Turísticos de Tabasco (email@example.com) or Viajes Camgo (firstname.lastname@example.org). The cost of touring with a guide is around £40 per day; also bookable through visitmexico.com, which has an English language option.
Where to stay
Where to eat
El Eden in Villahermosa for authentic Tabasco cuisine, (gruporodizio.com.mx)
A two-day chocolate tour with Chimalli in Oaxaca including airport transfers and chocolate demonstrations costs around £250 per person: seechimalli.travel
Where to stay
Hostal de La Noria, close to Oaxaca’s vibrant Zócalo Square (hostaldelanoria.com; doubles from £35)
Where to eat
Restaurante Catedral for excellent authentic dishes (restaurantecatedral.com.mx); Pal’Dolor Cocina de Autor for modern dishes and cocktails (paldolorcocinadeautor.coci); La Mezcalerita for mescal ales and snacks (facebook.com/lamezcalerita)