Shortly after arriving at Tenochtitlán in the fall of 1519, Hernán Cortés and the Spanish conquistadores were granted an audience with Moctezuma at his breakfast table. They found the Aztec ruler sipping an exotic drink called xocóatl (meaning bitter water). Made from ground cacao beans boiled in water, flavored with vanilla and other tropical spices, and chilled with bits of snow from nearby mountain tops, the pungent beverage was, the Spanish reported, “of a very exciting nature.”
Xocóatl was esteemed as an invigorating refreshment and its consumption was permitted only by those in the highest echelons of Aztec society. While there were various recipes for preparing xocóatl, calling for different spices and varieties of cacao, all required beating the concoction until a thick, nearly solid froth formed on the top. The drink was serve in a xícara, an elaborate gold goblet set on a base covered with jaguar skin, and accompanied by a tortoise shell spoon for eating the toothsome foam.
Xocóatl was used medicinally to alleviate abdominal pain, as an antidote for poison and as a medium for administering other remedies. When made from green cacao, the drink was considered a potent hallucinogen and aphrodisiac. Xocóatl and cacao also figured in certain religious ceremonies.
Cacao was a highly valued commodity in pre-Hispanic México. The great lords of the Maya culture cultivated large cacao plantation. They exchanged their crops for feathers, jade and other precious goods in the principal commercial centers of Mesoamerica. The buying power of cacao was such that a dozen beans more than sufficed to purchase a salve or procure an evening of pleasure with a prostitute. Moctezuma, who ruled a vast tribute-state, collected huge quantities of cacao twice a year from vassal communities. Aztec consumers often used cacao as currency for making their purchases in the bustling tianguis (marketplace).
Cacao and the other exotic tropical ingredients used in preparing xocóatl were among the New World treasures Cortés sent back to his sovereign, Carlos V. The Spanish took a great liking to the Aztec drink, especially once they discovered that the addition of sugar make it far more palatable. The dubbed the drink chocolate.