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by Bob Brooke

Chocolate lovers around the world believe that chocolate must have come from heaven. Few, however, realize that it was a Mexican heaven, for it was Aztecs who brought it to the world.

According to legend, to relieve the people from their toil and suffering, the gods selected Quetzalcoatl, the god of light, to assume human form and rule the Toltecs. His reign brought great happiness and prosperity. Before returning to heaven, Quetzalcoal stole cacao from the gods and gave it to his beloved people on earth. He taught them how to cultivate it and how to prepare the heavenly drink from it.

Myth aside, the Toltec Indians first cultivated cacao in pre-Hispanic Mexico. They prepared a cold, foamy drink from ground cocoa beans and a variety of herbs and spices, including corn, chiles and honey or rose water. During the winter, the Aztecs drank this hot–-thus hot chocolate.

The word "chocolate" comes from Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs. Although its exact origin is uncertain, the original word was most likely xocolatl and is thought to have meant "bitter water," because the primitive drink was prepared without sugar. According to another interpretation, the word chocolate came from choko, meaning "hot," and atl for "water."

The Aztecs traded cocoa beans as money, and many anthropologists believe the Aztecs thought it to be an aphrodisiac. Who knows, the custom of giving a loved one chocolate may have originated with the Aztecs!

Spanish conquistadors adopted chocolate when they observed the Aztecs drinking hot chocolate in Moctezuma's courts. Hernan Cortes wrote to his king that chocolate "improved the natural defenses of one's organism, and defended against fatigue."

The Spanish rapidly incorporated chocolate into their diet, and its popularity soon spread to other European countries. An attendant to Queen Maria Theresa, wife of Louis XIV, introduced chocolate to the court of Versailles.

Curiously, the English at first seemed impervious to the blandishments of chocolate. English pirates referred to chocolate as "sheep's dung" and once threw a cargo of it overboard from a captured Spanish ship. By the middle of the 17th Century, though, the English had succumbed and chocolate was selling at premium prices in London shops.

Today, the Mexicans prepare hot chocolate in much the same way as it was done in pre-Hispanic times. The tradition of putting corn in the drinks lives on--hot chocolate may be prepared with water, corn flour and milk, sometimes flavored with vanilla, strawberry or cinnamon.

Vendors sell a hot chocolate “mix” from chocolate shops in Mexican towns. As they grind the cacao beans, they mix in sugar and cinnamon to the desire of the buyer. To make hot chocolate, milk and butter is heated to boiling and the chocolate mix is added and the liquid simmered until the chocolate melts. Finally, the preparer spins a wooden stirrer called a molinillo around in the drink to create a bubbly froth. Delicioso!

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