Chocolate and Mezcal Pairing in Oaxaca, Mexico: Some Thoughts on Product Commonalities, Differences

Chocolate and Mezcal Pairing in Oaxaca, Mexico: Some Thoughts on Product Commonalities, Differences

She’s a tease. There’s no doubt about it. “No, not yet, you have to wait until I’m done first, please,” she entreats. While the foreplay is interesting, and sensuous to the extreme, I want to jump right in – and get at the three young mezcals, with 18 chocolates set up in front of them.

The evening was billed a mezcal and chocolate pairing event, or a maridaje in local parlance, held at Restaurante La Olla in downtown Oaxaca. It was hosted by owners Chef Pilar Cabrera and Ing. Luis Espinoza, and their special guest, chef/chocolatier Arcelia Gallardo. Mezcal brands Koch and Vago were featured.

Of course Chef Gallardo simply wanted us to hold off delving into her enticing chocolates alluringly set in front of us, with water at the ready and three mezcals in the wait. The idea was to direct us when to sample what, in the course of her discourse.

This was more than a mezcal and chocolate combining encounter. It was a treatise on the history of cacao, a lesson on the production of chocolate, and a discussion of its different formulations based on country / continent of origin. In addition, of course, there was the main focus, learning an appreciation of different mezcals as paired with a variety of chocolates. Each chocolate had been hand-crafted that very day by Chef Gallardo using Oaxacan ingredients she had earlier sourced with the assistance of Chef Pilar.

“I came to Oaxaca principally to learn about the region’s unique flavors and ingredients, with a view to experimenting with how I could incorporate what I discovered into my chocolate,” she explained.

Yes, the packed house learned about chocolate’s Mesoamerican origins, the differences between South American, African and American cacao concoctions, what exactly white chocolate is, why chocolate melts in your mouth (and in fact in your hands), and tasting notes relative to each sample devoured. But for me, a mezcal aficionado and researcher for in excess of two decades, what struck home most were the elements in common between and contrasted with cacao and chocolate on the one hand, and the iconic Mexican spirit on the other.

Naturally I was interested in everything Chef Gallardo had to say, given that it was all new to me; and who doesn’t have an interest in the wherefores and whys of chocolate? But I continually found myself relating what I was being coached about cacao and chocolate, to mezcal as well as pulque.

The Historical Record

In tracing the use of cacao to the Olmec civilization some 3,000 years ago, our grand maestra noted that residue of the cacao compound theobromine has been found in pottery vessels, evidencing its earliest consumption in Belize and Guatemala. My interest initially piqued recalling that archaeologists in Mexico have found clay pots with traces of alcohol, leading them to theorize about a pre-Hispanic distillation tradition. Many Mexican spirits thinkers take issue with this latter reasoning, primarily because there have not been codices, pictographs and the like found, detailing distillation as a cultural indicia among indigenous groups. The more accepted thinking is that the Spanish learned distillation from the Moors, and subsequently brought this knowledge to The New World, no earlier than in the first quarter of the 16th century.

With her powerpoint presentation Chef Gallardo showed us photographs of various paintings and clay containers, representing a Mayan god embracing a bowl containing cacao; a squirrel holding a pod; cacao vessels in ancient tombs; Aztec glyphs and notations in scriptures; a goddess of cacao; and more. The proponents of pre-Hispanic distillation, by contrast, have not been able to tie together the slight evidence of alcohol, with neither drawings nor stone or clay representations of anything beyond fermentation. Where to date they have failed, the chocolate historians have convincingly succeeded.

Modern Day Manifestations of Commonalities and Contrasts

One of the main positives in common between the production of chocolate and mezcal relates to the concept of bio-diversity and agro-forestry. Chef Gallardo pointed to cacao plantations being suited to multiple crop land use. Cacao can be shaded by allspice and coconut, and cardamom is capable of providing good ground cover. Regarding mezcal production, in between rows of agave and at times growing simply amongst the plants, crops such as alfalfa, garbanzo, corn, beans and squash are frequently found, enabling growers to reap annual rewards while waiting for their principal crop to mature – often eight to ten years after planting, at times much longer.

Chef Gallardo lamented the backbreaking work of cacao growers, and the often paltry wages they are paid, at least relative to the retail prices designer chocolate fetches. Farmers are required to check the trees as often as on a daily basis to ensure infestations do not take hold. Agave, on the other hand, requires very little attention. But the work of those who spend their days in the sun-drenched fields and slopes cutting the plants out of the ground and lifting the resultant piñas onto trucks, is grueling enough.

While the current price per kilo of agave used in mezcal production is upwards of tenfold and in some cases more, compared to what it was only three or four years ago, this fact does not necessarily translate to farmers obtaining an appropriate piece of the pie, given the work they do and market fluctuations. The same holds true for artisanal distillers. The lion’s share of campesinos and palenqueros are not enjoying an appreciably better standard of living, as compared to what is happening outside the villages of production. The price of export quality mezcal will continue to rise. As compared with the vagaries of living for the growers and producers, there will be no peaks and valleys in the financial fortunes of its foreign agents, its importers, and its retailers be they stores, bars or restaurants. In this vein, concerns by some “in the know” regarding the mezcal industry mirror those with a social conscience in the chocolate industry, such as Chef Gallardo.

Chef Gallardo commented briefly on the use of fertilizer for growing cacao, stating that many growers do not even know the term, let alone about the issue of chemical versus organic growth stimulants. My mind raced along to those mezcal producers boasting organic production, and recalling a friend in pulque production telling me that he composts whatever animal feces is available to use as fertilizer for his pulquero agave, but that it really isn’t enough to provide a significant change in growth pattern, and that in any event he simply cannot afford chemical fertilizers. Most small scale agave growers are practicing organic production without even considering the marketing aspect of their practice.

But what struck home perhaps the most were other matters relating to regulation and marketing of chocolate production, issues which mirror concerns of some commentators in the mezcal industry. And even if those concerns are not at the fore in chocolate chats, then they are certainly on the minds of chocolatiers such as Chef Gallardo.

Two sheets of paper in front of each attendee contained square boxes, with a different chocolate in each, with producer and origin noted: Dandelion from Venezuela and the Dominican Republic; Madécasse and Akesson from Madagascar; and Valrhona from Africa. As the lecture proceeded, we began tasting the chocolates while discerning different appearances, aromas, textures and finally tastes. In the course of an extremely enlightening question and answer session, Chef Gallardo confirmed what I assume most of us had at least considered, that origin is a major determinant of flavor. I asked from what country(ies) the African chocolate we have sampled is derived. She replied:

“There are so many trade secrets in the industry. There is no labeling requirement to disclose country of origin or even the percentage of powder versus cacao butter used in production.”

The chocolate from the Dominican Republic has dried cherry tones. “The country taste is clear,” Chef Gallardo confirms, then continued, “our Madécasse Madagascar sample contains vanilla.”

If producers label chocolate from Madagascar with the country of origin, why do they not label chocolate from other countries in Africa in a similar way, given in particular the extreme diversity in climatic regions and terroir on the continent and the importance of country of origin in determining flavor?

I am less than a novice when it comes to cacao and chocolate. However, no doubt there are ongoing round table discussions and perhaps even cogent and convincing answers to the foregoing question and other matters relating to labeling.

As the evening progressed I proceeded to consider comparisons and contrasts and live issues in the mezcal industry which relate to chocolate regulation.

Labeling of mezcal for export is regulated to a significant extent, although quality, quantity and parameters are often debated. We have denominación de origen, alcohol content and percentage agave used in production all required to be noted. I have personally questioned whether the mezcal industry would be better served with more comprehensive labeling of region where the agave was grown versus fermented versus distilled, and species and subspecies of agave given the plethora of often confusing local variations in terminology. But after having heard what’s going on and arguably lacking in chocolate regulation / labeling, I began to think perhaps our own back yard is not doing all that bad.

The Pairings

The first mezcal Koch we sampled was a madrecuixe. Chef Gallardo paired it with a truffle filled with seasonal guava. We then scoffed another truffle with the same mezcal, filled with panela. Our final pairing with Koch madrecuixe was a hard chocolate made with pecan and dried cranberry.

The second Koch mezcal was infused with gusano. For me and for most of the crowd it provided the best-suited mezcal for combining, no doubt due to Chef Gallardo’s expertise. I usually do not drink mezcal de gusano. However I found that the semi-hard chocolate topped with a chapulín both complemented and moderated what is often too strong a gusano flavor. The second chocolate entry was made with chiles guajillo and chilhuacle amarillo, the tangy chocolate subtly and correctly overpowering the larva-laden mezcal. The final Koch pairing was with a hard chocolate made with local corn and coconut.

The Vago mezcal was made with corn grown in the same micro-climate where the mezcal was produced, near the tiny Oaxaca hamlet of Candelaria Yegolé. The corn had been infused in a quantity of mezcal espadín, then distilled in a copper alambique topped up with additional espadín a la mezcal de pechuga. The first chocolate was a truffle spiked with rosita de cacao, one of the requisite ingredients used to make tejate, the local, high-nutrition corn and cacao pre-Hispanic drink. The second was an overly salty yet nevertheless complementary milk chocolate made with chipotle and topped with sea salt. The final chocolate entry combined with the Vago mezcal was prepared with pinole.

Mezcal Pairings: Chocolate is But One in the Realm of Combining Partners

Mezcal viewed as a sipping spirit is still in its infancy. And even more so is the perception of it as a beverage worthy of giving consideration for pairing. Some twenty years down the road, perhaps sooner, we might find on our bookshelves a compendium of different types of mezcal best suited for combining with different beverages, desserts and other foodstuffs as well as full meal offerings. Indeed some producers of mezcal añejo have already begun to market by recommending particular qualities of chocolate best combined with their spirit.

Evening sessions have begun to pop up pairing a selection of beers from a particular craft brewery with mezcals from a specific distillery. I envision more professionals’ efforts working to find the perfect mix of mezcals with both popular sweets and main courses, especially in those regions of Mexico where mezcal is a locally produced spirit, and in major international centers where the spirit is now in vogue.

Be more conscious of which mezcal you’re drinking with what, continue to combine with different chocolates, and like me, consider what’s behind the production and marketing of each. In this way you’ll support the development of healthier industries, for our benefit and for everyone, in particular those who currently remain near and at the bottom of the production chain.