When I was marooned in the heart of a rainforest in Madagascar for over a year, the last thing I could find was chocolate.
Although Madagascar is renowned for its cacoa beans, the average income of those who grow them is less than $250 a year. Spending money on a candy bar made about as much sense to the starving barefooted peasants as suggesting they invest in a pair of Jimmy Choos. But American that I am, I longed for my chocolate.
Once in a blue moon I’d hike over the mountains, catch a bush taxi for a twelve hour trek over a lunar terrain to the nearest city and slip unobserved into a market where I might find some sickeningly sweet milk chocolate to tide me over. But back in my little mud hut, my chocolate cravings were satisfied only by my dreams. It took months of nothing to eat but rice and greens and rice and beans for me to screech with joy when I opened a package from home and found a case of Swiss Miss Instant Hot Cocoa.
I never cared for Swiss Miss – it was my father’s guilty pleasure, a packet tucked in his lunch pail with a thermos of hot water, or a quick cup made late at night while he sat back in his over-stuffed chair to read a tattered paperback of Mark Twain or Jack London. It was the instant generation, when all things pre-mixed, freeze-dried and chemically synthesized were treasured as if they were moon rocks, and I wanted nothing to do with it, longing for the good old days of Hershey’s hot cocoa.
But after months in the rainforest with no running water, a stove made of burning firewood and a lactose-intolerant population that would drink fermented gasoline before milk from a cow’s udder, receiving the package of Swiss Miss Hot Chocolate was better than opening up a box full of money. I remember well those rainy afternoons, huddled around the fire with my Malagasy women friends, a few of their children stacking the wood for the fire in excited expectation of the white woman’s sweet chocolate drink. We’d sip from small enameled tin cups while swapping tales of cheating men and misbehaving teenagers, wiping the emptied cups with our dirty fingers, and licking them clean of the chocolaty powdered remnants.
Now, years later, surrounded by luxuries they could never imagine, I share similar afternoons with my daughter and friends but this time, the Swiss Miss has been replaced with the thick and luscious sipping chocolate that tastes like drinking a truffle. Sipping chocolate derives from an ancient Aztec beverage once used to stimulate, satiate and heal. In more recent years, Europeans melted chocolate and mixed it with spices and hot water, serving the rich, steaming chocolate drink in small demitasse cups. Americans are now turning from hot chocolate – cocoa powder mixed with sugar and hot milk, to drinking chocolate – practically pure chocolate melted and heated to a rich sipping brew. And along the way, we’ve replaced the water that Europeans sensibly use with our beloved whole milk (often with an added shot of rich cream) to produce a truly memorable drink.
Drinking chocolate is quite expensive, averaging four or five dollars a cup if you buy it prepackaged from chocolatiers. But it’s remarkably easy to make your own. For a fraction of the price you can buy high quality chocolate couveture (the large discs of chocolate used for tempering), throw them in the food processor with some spices (try chili, cinnamon, cardamom, clove, vanilla and a dash of allspice; perhaps some fresh ground black pepper for a bite, or even ginger).
Process the chocolate a few seconds until you have a crumbly mixture and store in a jar. To make the drinking chocolate, just mix one part chocolate with one to one and a half parts whole milk (or two-thirds milk and one-third cream), bring to a simmer while whisking constantly (or mix with an emulsion blender) until the chocolate is melted and the drink is hot and frothy. Serve in small teacups, bless the Gods for their gift and lick the cup clean.
Now that I’ve tasted the real thing, next time I head to the rainforest, I’m packing a bag full of sipping chocolate – and if I can’t find milk or hot water, I’ll just eat it by the spoonful and let it melt in my mouth!
For a spicy cup of sipping chocolate, try this recipe: