Cacao seeds and Molcajete

Image of Cacao seeds and Molcajete

Cacao Seeds and Molcajete

Cacao Seeds
Yucatan, Mexico 2014

To the ancient Mesoamericans, this was a big pile of money! Cacao seeds were used as currency, earned by workers as wages and traded far and wide for other materials. In this display you’ll see dried seeds on the left and roasted ones on the right, also known as “nibs” by chocolatiers today.

Crack open a cacao pod and you’ll find these seeds nestled in a milky pulp. Together seeds and pulp are exposed to the air for several days to ferment. This chemical process releases key enzymes. The seeds are spread out to dry in the sun for about a week, then delicately roasted.
At this point they’re usually shipped overseas for the next round of processing. The cacao nibs are ground down in a high heat, where the fat (cocoa butter) is separated out from the cocoa powder. The powder is then easier to work with, and it’s sometimes sold on its own as unsweetened baking chocolate. Meanwhile, the cocoa butter is alkalized so it will remain suspended in liquid longer and added back to the powder with extra ingredients like milk, sugar, and spices. Chocolate is then poured into molds, dried, packaged, and shipped to a store near you! Each stage of the process contributes to the rich flavors we know and love.

Molcajete and Tejolote
Basalt Rock; Mexico 1980

This traditional Mexican version of mortar (molcajete) and pestle (tejolote) are used to grind various foods like spices and chiles. Chocolate is traditionally ground using a much larger and heavier stone tool called a metate, which is long and flat rather than round. A metate wouldn’t have fit very well in this delicate glass case, but this molcajete can be useful for chocolate in other ways. Mole, a savory Mexican sauce, is usually made with a chocolate base, but its many other spices can be ground using a tool like this one.

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