I’ve never been known to willingly turn down chocolate. It is a staple in my diet but I’ve never really given much thought to how chocolate is made. My only thoughts on the subject of chocolate are “What type?” and “Yes please”. So when I heard about Choco, a Chocolate Museum in Antigua, that ran chocolate-making workshops, it was clear to me I needed to sign up for one.
The two-hour workshop started with a brief lesson on the cacao tree, the different species, where they are grown, how the fruit is harvested, how important the tree was to the Mayans etc. I honestly couldn’t tell you anything about any of the above because for that entire time I was hovering at the edge of the group like an impatient child and thinking: “Yes yes, very nice, when do we get to the chocolate?”.
We adjourned to the kitchen for the practical part of the class. A bundle of dried out cacao seeds was spilled before us, and it became our job to toast them. So we stirred and pushed and nudged the seeds around the ceramic plate, waiting for the distinctive popping sounds that would tell us they were done. It took a while but soon they began crackling.
And then we had to peel the seeds, which was not as easy as you might think. For a start, they were still damn hot from the toasting, and secondly the skins were tough to get off. But that wasn’t the hardest part. No, that was the grinding. We were each given a mortar and pestle and told to get to work grinding the seeds down to a chocolate paste. It took forever. Forever. It took more than 20 minutes of crushing, smashing and grinding before I had ground the seeds to a passable paste. It took effort and by the end of it my wrists were sore, and my biceps had been given quite a workout.
At that point began what I thought would be the fun part of the workshop – tasting the chocolate. First up was tasting the raw ingredient, ground down cacao. This was quite bitter, as was to be expected, given no sugar had been added. Then came the “chocolate tea”, made from the peeled skins of the seeds. Not bad, a bit watery but definitely an improvement on the raw paste.
And then came the traditional Mayan drink. For this we mixed our ground paste with hot water, some sugar and some spices. The Mayans felt that their hot chocolate was drink worthy of the Gods, and would often offer up a cup of this concoction during religious ceremonies. Except they had a secret ingredient – human blood. Funnily enough, no one in our group was prepared to open a vein to complete the recipe so instead we made do with paprika. So frothy hot chocolate, a pinch of sugar, a pinch of chilli, a pinch of paprika – interesting recipe, no?
I nearly choked. It was all I could do not to spit the foul drink back on to the kitchen counter. I don’t know if it was the paprika or the chilli that had been overdone, but something was just not right with that hot chocolate. Maybe the original Mayan recipe – with blood – tasted better. I noted with satisfaction that a few of the other girls in my group had the same reaction as me, and nobody put their hands up for seconds. Mind you another friend at the hostel who did a later workshop told me he quite liked the drink, which really surprised me.
After laughing at us forcing down the Mayan hot chocolate, our resident chocolatier informed us we would now be making European style hot chocolate. I was so relieved as I watched hot milk, sugar and cinnamon being added to the paste. This was definitely more like it.
And then came the part I was waiting for – actually making our own chocolate. We were each given a small bowl of liquid dark chocolate to pour into various molds, and to our little chocolate we were able to add all manner of ingredients; chilli ginger, almonds and cashews among them. After that our molds were whisked off to a fridge to set and we were told to come back in 30 minutes to pick them up. Of course I was hovering by the door after 25 minutes, and after letting me hover for a good five minutes more, the staff pulled out my chocolates and bagged them up for me. I wasn’t two steps out of the museum before I was ripping into them.
The taste was definitely worth the wait, the chocolate was dark, rich and unbelievably smooth. And without knowing which chocolate had which added ingredient, each one was a delicious surprise. After gorging myself on chocolate, I realised I should probably share them or risk making myself quite sick. So, share them (reluctantly) I did.
I wish I could say that the day gave me a greater appreciation of chocolate, but then I don’t think that would be possible, given I practically worship it at present. I will say though that I do now have a taste for the finer, darker variety and will be hedging towards that in the future (and steering well clear of any Mayan drinks).