Of all the difficult things to turn into food (and most plants and animals are difficult to turn into food), cacao beans and their processing rank way up there.
Let’s leave to one side the fermenting and cleaning and just think about the grinding of cacao. Because of the oil content, grinding cacao beans is a whole lot harder than grinding grains. In Mesoamerica the grinding of cacao was done by sheer brute force on a simple grindstone.
Yet in the sixteenth century, chocolate as a drink spread quite widely from Mesoamerica to Spain and other parts of Europe on the Atlantic side and to the Philippines on the Pacific side.
(The rest of Asia never accepted chocolate, largely still doesn’t), an interesting question in itself).
Neither the Europeans nor the Filipinos were still using a simple grindstone. They’d given it up hundreds of years earlier for the more efficient (if less flexible) rotary grindstone. Hopeless for cacao because they gum up.
So where did the simple grindstones (metates) and the grinders come from? A non-trivial question because this is one of the few culinary technologies that go from the New World to the Old World.
First, I assume the grindstones/metates went from New Spain to the Old World by ship. Making the kind of metate that is good for grinding chocolate (and shown in pictures) is a skilled job. It’s not something that any old stone mason can just knock out. And it needs a knowledge of which rock formations are good and these are not necessarily or even normally the same as those for rotary grindstones.
Second, the grinders. These poor folk had not only to do the work of grinding but hump the 30-50 lb grindstone around with them. When I bought my chocolate grindstone (a specific size and shape), the metatero and his son, neither of them weaklings, used a wheelbarrow to move it.
In Spain and southern France, according to Marcy Norton, it was usually Separdic Jews who did this, though painting also show “Moors.”
And Beatrice Misa sent me this about the Philippines.
I was talking to a friend who is also doing work with cacao and apparently, before the stone grinders were used here (the ones you turn around, for grinding rice and corn), there were metates (at least he described them to look exactly like that, but no local name was given). It was a surprise to me, because I have never seen pictures or read accounts.
There were Chinese who would walk around and provide the service to families who wanted their cacao ground. Obviously the metate was more portable. It was said that the Chinese (who were abundant in the Philippines at the time, working as cooks or street vendors, also marginalized considerably) were the best cacao grinders, and would get them very fine despite the manual nature of their work. Every family would have their own beans “timpla” or mixed the way they wanted, and then the individual tableas would be stamped with their family seal.
Both the Sephardic Jews and the Chinese must have learned how to do it from migrants from New Spain, if what normally holds in technology transfer also applies here. It almost always happens when there is someone to show you.
I wonder if we will ever find manuscripts that shed light on who taught Sephardic Jews and the Chinese in the Philippines to grind? And where they got their beans? And how all this functioned as a business? And why and how it kept going until it was mechanized two hundred and fifty years later?
Not easy, technology transfer. And meantime, I would like chocolate stamped with my personal seal.