On Zarela's Mind: Chocolate Through the Ages

My friend, Victor Nava, Mexico City’s most famous caterer, has served popes, kings, queens and world leaders over the years, but enjoys entertaining at home the most. He is a marvelous host and constantly has dinners and lunches—sometimes both in the same day.

The regulars know that bringing flowers is forbidden and new invitees are informed of the rule. Victor says: “You have to take them, run around to find a vase and flower clippers, arrange them and put them somewhere visible to the donor.” (I don't agree with him—I love when people bring me flowers.)

He’s a little cynical, but so charming he can get away with anything. For instance, when Mexico City was under siege 10 years ago, he would announce that guests were limited to talking about “only one asalto [mugging] per person.”

I tend to say half-jokingly (and mainly to shock) that I think giving chocolates to someone who is always watching her weight, like me, is very inconsiderate. I love chocolate. I love the sensuality of resting a truffle on my tongue and letting it melt slowly. When someone gives me a box of really special chocolates, I immediately hide it. I promise myself that I will only eat one a day, but sometimes one becomes two and two becomes three and I lose control. It comforts me when I’m sad, stimulates me when I have no energy, and satisfies a craving for something forbidden.

Chocolate has gone from foe to friend and friend to foe many times over the ages. At this time, it is a friend. The Journal of the American Medical Association said that dark chocolate can actually help lower high blood pressure and, if you don’t drink milk at the same time, it is a true antioxidant! But only the dark chocolate is good for you, so skip the Hershey’s Kisses and go for the real ones. What’s more, it’s almost Valentine’s Day and chocolate is an aphrodisiac.

Most people think of chocolate as a sweet, but in pre-Hispanic times chocolate was the beverage of kings. It was sometimes sweetened with native honey but usually served in its natural bitter state, much like 74 percent unsweetened chocolate today. When the Spaniards introduced chocolate to Europe, it was also used primarily as a beverage. It wasn’t until the 19th century when the technique for processing chocolate for candy and cake baking was developed.

What surprises many people is that it is also used in savory dishes. Of course everyone knows that some moles are “the chocolate sauce.” In Paris, I had Pierre Gagniere’s marvelous duck with chocolate, and in northern Spain they serve talas, a thick corn tortilla smeared with luscious chocolate. I add chipotle powder. Recently, I prepared an all-chocolate menu for a benefit. It included both sweet and savory dishes, plus beverages and desserts. The menu and some recipes are on my website, Zarela.com.

Someone made chocolate from scratch on a metate and the smell permeated the entire setting and beyond. The memory of the aroma will not easily be forgotten by the many guests.

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