The refreshing drink chocolatl enjoyed by Aztec nobility is a remote but distinct relative of the chocolate consumed today by hundreds of millions of people. It was once so precious that chocolate beans were a common medium of exchange in preconquest Mexico. In those days a mere dozen cacao beans could command a present value of upward of $100 in goods or services. Counterfeiting was rife—entrepreneurs tried to create chocolatl from anything, including avocado seeds. Moreover, chocolatl was thought to be so potent an aphrodisiac and hallucinogen that its use was denied, under penalty of death, to commoners.
Although intrigued, Europeans were put off by the bitter taste of chocolatl. Around 1600 a whole shipload of chocolate beans was jettisoned at sea by English privateers who, having captured a Spanish galleon, mistook its cargo for goat dung. The French soon made chocolatl easier to stomach by powdering it; the British added milk; and finally, the Swiss, of Nestlé fame, cashed in with chocolate candy. The world hasn’t been the same since.
Though chocolatl found its way to Europe, it never left Mexico, where hot chocolate, whipped frothy with a wooden-ringed molinillo (little mill), is more common now than in Aztec times. In Mexico, chocolate is more than mere dessert; used to spice the tangy moles of southern Mexico, it’s virtually a national food.