Exhibition: XOCOATL, food for the gods
Lleida, 27 November 2002
Chachau haa was not only the chocolate most widely consumed by the late Mayans, but was also used as a preventive remedy against snakebites. Considered a “precious” product, it was under the protection of Ek Chuah, a deity who was the patron of cocoa and of traders. Cocoa also had a place in Mexican culture, now known popularly as “Aztec” culture, which added various flavourings and colorants to it in order to make Aztec “chocolates”. Despite this, it was in fact the Olmec culture, around the second millennium BC, which discovered its pleasures and virtues. It was not until the 16th century AD, however, that cocoa also arrived in Europe and soon became a highly prized drink that even monks would dare to savour when fasting. All this is recounted in XOCOATL, food for the gods, an exhibition in Lleida which reveals the secrets of this delicious ancestral culture. Produced and organised by Fundació ”la Caixa”, the exhibition recreates the history of cocoa and its consumption on the basis of many scenery settings and over a hundred objects from various museums and private collections: implements used since remote times for making chocolate, recipes, botanical albums, sculptures, masks, photographs, period engravings, pottery and drawings, among others.
The exhibition XOCOATL, food for the gods, whose curator is the historian Maria Mestre, can be visited at the Social and Cultural Center of ”la Caixa” Foundation in Lleida (carrer Blondel, 3), from 27 November 2002 to 19 January 2003.
The exhibition XOCOATL, food for the gods is divided into four sections. Under the title Theobroma cacao, the first area presents the raw material and its varieties, the process of production (fermentation, drying, roasting and grinding) and the main world producers of cocoa. Following this, Cocoa and the Pre-Columbian Cultures looks into the origins of cocoa and provides an introduction to the Meso-American cultures (Olmec, Maya, Aztec) who discovered the product, started to consume it and used it as a medium of exchange. The sub-area Travelling between Two Worlds recounts the cultural, social and culinary “shock” which the discovery of America represented for the West and how the Atlantic Ocean witnessed the exchange and mixing of products which arose in the relations between the two continents.
The third section, Hoc non frangit ieiunium, focuses on the introduction of cocoa to Europe through the religious orders and the controversy which arose within the Church as to whether or not consuming this product constituted breaking a fast. The sub-area, Chocolate and the European Aristocracy tells how, at first, this drink was restricted to the rich classes. Finally, in the section Production, Consumption and Advertising there is an outline of the process of industrialisation of chocolate, which made it into a mass product exploited to the point of satiety by advertising.
Belonging to the family of the Sterculiaceae, the cacao is a tree originating in the American continent, where 22 species have been identified. Only one of these is commercialised, however: Theobroma cacao. Three varieties of this species are used nowadays: criollo cacao (from Central America and South America), forastero cacao (from the Amazonian zone) and trinitario cacao (a hybrid of the first two). After harvesting and splitting the pods to remove the pulp, the cacao seeds or beans have to be submitted to a process of transformation in order to be able to make chocolate from them: fermentation, drying, roasting and grinding. During the 18th and 19th centuries, the growing demand for cocoa imposed a new direction on production and distribution circuits. The Ivory Coast has now become the world’s leading producer of cacao.
The cacao and Pre-Columbian cultures
The history of use of the cacao tree goes back to the third millennium AD. The Olmec civilisation was the first to cultivate the tree and discovered nixtamilisation (preparation and cooking of foods to make them easier to digest). The Mayas and the Aztecs inherited that know-how: they ate cocoa in the form of chocolate and used the butter as an ointment and the beans as a medium of exchange. They also mixed it with various products to invent different drinks: chauchau haa (hot water and cocoa), tzune (cocoa, naseberry seeds, corn and water), ik-al kakaw (cocoa, green pepper and water), and so forth. For these civilisations, moreover, it was a means of exchange subject to exchange rates (fat beans and flat ones were not worth the same). Thus the daily wage of a loader from central Mexico was equivalent to a hundred cacao beans, while the services of a prostitute cost eight to ten beans.
Hoc non frangit ieiunium
The religious orders were a channel of introduction of chocolate to Europe. This food became a real passion among churchmen, who used to have it for breakfast, to the point that various theologians argued over whether or not it could be said to break a fast. In the end, Popes Paul V and Gregory XIII pronounced on the matter: “Hoc non frangit ieiunium” (this does not break a fast). What the apostolic nunciate did manage to ban in 1681 was the consumption of chocolate in churches, as ladies were in the habit of drinking it hot during the sermons. During the 17th century chocolate was an expensive aristocratic drink, as outlined in the area Chocolate and the European Aristocracy. From the second half of that century, it was consumed frozen, hot, with milk and with eggs. Charles III used to send Soconusco cocoa bars (flavoured with cinnamon and vanilla) to noble relatives and even to the Pope. Chocolate soon became fashionable among the ladies of the Spanish aristocracy, who used to take the shade on warm afternoons in the company of their galant (lover), as their husbands did not usually arrive until dinner-time.
Production, consumption and advertising
The industrial revolution brought mechanisation of the chocolate manufacturing processes: the steam machine for moulding the beans (1789), the hydraulic press for separating the cocoa butter (1815-1825), the alkalisation process to make the powdered cocoa mix better with hot water (1828), etc. These and other processes made large-scale manufacturing possible, thereby lowering costs. Sweets, bars and chocolates emerged onto the market, accompanied by advertising gifts and radio messages. And television soon made chocolate into an object of desire for the consumer and a source of income for businessmen.
XOCOATL, food for the gods
From 27 November 2002 to 19 January 2003
Social and Cultural Center of ”la Caixa” Foundation in Lleida
The exhibition is open to the public:
Monday to Saturday, 10 a.m. 1 p.m. and 5 p.m. 9 p.m.
Sundays and bank holidays, 11 a.m. 2 p.m.
Admission free of charge