Jan 29, 2017

Chocolate, Gum, and Jade, Are We Still in Mexico?

I would rather have questions
that can't be answered
than answers that can't
be questioned.

Richard Feynman

Skeleton of the Mayan King Yichak Kak, ‘Claw of the Jaguar’. 
Found in Calakmul tomb IV. He fought against Tikal.  600-800 CE.
Notice the number of jade beads adorning him. 
He is also covered with cinnabar (red color).
We are still in Mexico traveling further into the State of Campeche we learn more about chocolate, the famous Jaina clay figurines (in the next post), jade, ruins, see some arts and crafts and become more familiar with the old maze-like downtown market.  We also discover why this place is not high on the tourism market…  and probably won’t be for a while longer.

Chocolatera, molinillo, and tablillas de chocolate.  Our new kitchen toy!
Made of very hard wood, this is where you mix your hot cocoa.


First order of business was to find locally made chocolate.  By chance, we had seen a video explaining how the locals make chocolate tablets approximately the size of hockey pucks but only 1/4-3/8 inch-thick, some with designs, some plain.  They use a metal hoop they lay on a hard surface and fill with chocolate powder mixed with various ingredients such as cinnamon, cane sugar, vanilla, anise, nutmeg, chili powder, etc.  They press that mixture into the hoop, by hand, until it is filled evenly.  It is then taken out of the hoop and wrapped in paper ready to sell.  Some are rolled by hands but the hoop keeps it to a specific size and one generally uses 1.5 to 2 tablillas per chocolatera depending if you are making it with water or milk.

What an inviting work environment with the smell of heavenly spices, vanilla, or almond, mixed with chocolate.  Yummy.  The hands of the ladies who make these tablets are brown as if they had been hennaed.  The place we visited, Jade Negro (Black Jade) has been in business for over 70 years.  Despite such extended history, it is a sweet small gem, tucked away in a side street.  Jade is very meaningful to Mayas but more on that later.

We get a taste and it is wonderful and different. The artisanal chocolate is ground on a metate (grinding stone) so it is not powdered as finely as what we are accustomed to.  There is a bit of granularity to it, something that takes a bit to get used to.  Of course, the type of chocolate we tried is for hot chocolate, not exactly meant to be eaten like a candy.  The three generations of ladies working there are extremely enthusiastic telling us about their products and history. 

We had seen cocoa growing in Comala on a visit in 2013 but this is much closer to where it is really happening.  This region gives the cocoa tree needed moisture and heat for optimal growth.  As an evergreen, it is always in bloom and requires shade (like coffee).  Cocoa likes to grow where the temperature is between 20 and 30C i.e. Chiapas, Tabasco, Guerrero, Veracruz, Michoacan, Colima, Campeche and Quintana Roo. Even though we feel like we are surrounded by cocoa trees, 70% of the world’s production comes from Africa, 16% from Asia and Oceania, with Mexico only supplying a mere 0.01%.  Even though consumption of chocolate is comparatively low in Mexico at 6-7 kilos/person/year vs. Europe at 22-25 kilos/person/year, Mexico still needs to import chocolate to meet its demand!!!

Its scientific name is Theobroma Cocoa; theos meaning god, and broma meaning food.  (Hum, bromance may take a whole new meaning.) It translates to ‘food of the gods’.  The cacao was known as kakaw, kagaw, xocoatl, or cacahuatl in various parts of Mesoamerica where it was discovered.
Mature cabosses, maracas or cobs on trunk.
It is a caulifloro tree where the flowers and fruits grow directly on the trunk and old branches.  The fruit is a berry called cabosse, maraca or cob.  From the 6,000 flowers a tree will have in a year, only 20-30 maracas will mature.  Although the fruits ripen throughout the year, it is usually harvested between November and March.  They start producing at 5 years and continue to do so for about 40 years.  Each maraca contains only 30-40 cocoa beans.  It takes about 1,200 seeds to produce a kilo of powder.

They were so important to the Mayas that they could be used to trade for just about anything: food, paying taxes, during birth ceremonies, as wedding presents or for the services of prostitutes.  When the Spaniards first arrived in the early 1,500’s they called them almonds for they have similar shapes.  They had no clue of their value to the Mayas. 

Cacao beans have been grown/harvested in these areas since 1,900 BCE.  The Mayas have carried that tradition through the present time.  Unlike incorrect reports floating out there, the Mayas have not disappeared, there are an estimated 6-7 million Mayas in the world today.
In its native form, chocolate proved very distasteful to the Spaniards, being an unsweetened mixture of cold water, ground cacao, ground corn, and ground chili pepper, flavored with many highly scented tropical blossoms or vanilla.  Thanks to some nuns in Puebla, Mexico, that mixture has evolved with the addition of a sweetener, milk and an egg if you want it even thicker. 
When conquistadors brought that exotic drink back to Spain, priests considered chocolate a sinful pleasure to be banned.  Thankfully, with little luck, chocolate escaped the clutches of the clergy. 
Chocolate cobs, beans and powder.

From 2001 to 2009 cocoa production decreased 47% due to disease, aging or abandoned plantations.  Mexico has dismal production even though it is one of the Mesoamerican countries where it originated.  Many farmers changed to more profitable or reliable crops or sold their land to Pemex to drill for oil. 

Despite all the problems with growing chocolate Mexico is the birthplace of cocoa and nowhere else in the world is chocolate’s sensuality celebrated more.  Efforts are made today to grow more cocoa in smaller spaces with new varieties of the plant and with better growing techniques, hoping to make it more profitable to the growers and to keep it local…

Fun note:  the Spanish expression for 'A taste of their own medicine' is: 'Una sopa de su proprio chocolate', a soup of their own chocolate.....


Chicle, a precursor to today’s gum, can best be described as resin/latex.  It was used by the Mayas for hundreds of years, extracted from the sapodilla tree of southern Mexico and Central America.  The resin is like a natural bandage to the tree, meant to form a protective layer over cuts in the bark, a lot like natural rubber/latex.  Slicing the bark strategically only every five years for the health of the tree, one could collect this resin and create a chewable substance from it.  It was cooked and dried then chewed to quench thirst, stave off hunger or as a breath-freshener. 
Chiclero making marks in a sapodilla tree.

Mexican General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna inadvertently introduced gum to New York.  He first went there when he was taken prisoner in 1836.  He was eventually released and came back to NY with a supply of chicle to see if rubber could be made from it.  American inventor Thomas Adams experimented with that chicle but found it unsuitable as a rubber base.  One day, Adams noticed someone chewing paraffin-based gum and remembered that General Santa Anna too had chewed chicle, the very substance he was trying to turn into rubber.  This rediscovery of what the Mayas had known for over 1,000 years revolutionized the manufacturing of gum.
Meanwhile Santa Anna had gone back to Mexico, leaving Adams with all the bills for storing the chicle and not knowing that chicle would change the gum market in the world.  Eventually Adams made gum and it took him a good two years to find a way for that gum to hold flavor which was the turning point in making it a huge success.  Chiclets, as the gum is named now, finally came to market in 1899.

It became so popular that ‘chicleros’ (resin collectors) came in droves to where sapodillas grew to extract more natural resin for the thirsty growing American market.  It is during these forays into the forest looking for chicle that many Mayan ruins were found.  Archeologists have taken advantage of the chicleros’ knowledge of the locations of ancient settlements and have hired them as guides for nearly a century.  Many are still used as guides today.

Working to dry the chicle a little like taffy.
In Britain, a small Mexican company called Chicza is marketing ‘the world’s first biodegradable chewing gum’.  It is found in the US:  http://www.chiczausa.com/.  Today, gum is the second biggest litter problem behind cigarette butts costing cities millions in clean up dollars and killing many of the birds and fish that consume it. 

The Maya civilization met its end for reasons still largely unknown, and virtually the only Mayan practice retained intact was that of chewing gum.  Temples, roads, calendar, great cities were abandoned but chewing gum remained.  And thanks to the search for the resin to make the gum, old temples were rediscovered.  Full circle…


Most people think jade comes from Asia.  Few people realize that true jade (jadeite rather than nephrite) has a rich history for the Mayas, and came from Guatemala’s Motogua Valley.  It took archeologists until 1974 to find this source and a few more may be found over time.

For Mayas, jade symbolized fertility, and its hardness represented immortality, eternity, heaven, and encouragement.  Because of its green color, this stone was associated with water, and vegetation, especially young, maturing corn, the life blood of this culture.  For this reason, it was also related to life and death.  Jade was sacred and a symbol of veneration.  Maya leaders were buried with jade masks, so they could be recognized as leaders after death.  They appreciated this stone so much that when the Spanish conquistadors arrived and asked for an offering, they gave them some jade stones, which Hernán Cortéz rejected and discarded, only wanting gold. 
Funerary mask with ear ornaments, Calakmul, Campeche
INAH, Mexico 660-750 CE, Jade, gray obsidian and shell. 
Ear-flares are four-petal flowers, expression of cosmos.
 Flowers inhale and exhale moisture = breath of life.  Its nectar = fertility.
Ear of corn on head, snakes below ears, butterfly below chin.  Much symbolism
Today, only diamonds are more valuable than good quality jade.  Jade is scarce, there are only deposits in Guatemala and Burma, and Guatemala’s is listed as the best in the world.  The ancient Mayan civilizations incorporated the beautiful jade stone in their society and traditions, and made it part of their culture.  This stone has transcended millions of years, and it is still thought of as the Mayas sacred stone.

It is considered harder than steel and since the Mayas did not have metal tools to work with, it was a very labor intensive art form requiring a great level of skill, hence reserved only for the elites.
Jade was traded and exchanged among select members as a luxury item all over the pre-Hispanic American world. It was replaced by gold very late in time in Mesoamerica, and around 500 CE in Central America. In these locations, frequent contacts with South America made gold more easily available.

Since jade was considered sacred and holy and the ultimate symbol of all that is good including eternal love, it was often found in elite burial contexts, as personal adornments or accompanying objects.

We have seen nice examples of jade masks and beads when visiting a couple of the museums around Campeche. 

Many jade beads, some coral
As for why Campeche may stay a little sleepy town with only about 15% tourism?  We spent many hours driving up and down the coast to find a nice sandy beach to walk on and they are very few and far between.  If there is a beach, the fishermen usually have prime access to them and they are taken up by pangas, poles and lines, and other fishing paraphernalia, not very conducive to beach time for tourists.  This coast is mostly rocky and the water, although fairly clear, is dark due to the extensive growth of grasses. There is more to tourism than beaches but many people want to take a break in a sunny spot on the sand and this is not common here…

No comments:

Post a Comment

We are always happy to hear from you but at times it may take a while to get a reply - all depends if we have access to the internet.