Dueling Dishes: ¡Chocolate Mexicano!

Chocolate. Drink of the Aztecs, modern-day obsession, and Mexico's second-best food gift to the world (the first, of course, is nixtamalization, which kept two entire continents from starvation).

Mexican chocolate comes as a shock to those who've never had it. It's not a block of smooth, emulsified, glossy dark shards. It doesn't break like a fancy chocolate bar; it doesn't have a fancy Swiss or Belgian pedigree. It's rustic, but full of soul.

Mexican chocolate is ground with a stone called a mano on a curved volcanic stone called a metate. First the cocoa beans are roasted; then they are ground by hand with the metate y mano; after they break down and start to melt, sugar, cinnamon and almonds are added. The chocolate is set into molds and allowed to harden.

The result is a gritty product, one that breaks roughly. It's made to melt; it's unusual to see Mexican people chowing down on a piece of chocolate de metate. It's meant to be stirred into hot water and beaten with a special whisk called a molinillo, which emulsifies the drink and sets a beautiful layer of froth on top.

The United States knows just two brands of Mexican chocolate: Ibarra and Abuelita. We won't even get into Abuelita, a Nestle brand; of the two national brands, Ibarra is the finer. But how does it stack up against real, artisanal Mexican chocolate?

Its competitor in this competition is Chocolate Fervi, made by the Fernández family in Jerez, Zacatecas. It isn't available in the United States, sadly; it was procured for me by our resident jerezano, whose great-grandfather created the recipe and whose primos continue to run the company (but Gustavo's branch of Fernándezes doesn't talk to them because of some rancho drama or other).

There's simply no comparison. Ibarra is to Fervi as Hershey's Special Dark is to Teuscher. The Ibarra, though shinier and more American-looking, tasted flat and not acidic enough; the Fervi was alive with flavor and had an acidic edge that recalled the original purpose of chocolate, as a bitter drink. The Ibarra was sweeter–much sweeter–and the taste of the nuts was missing from the Ibarra. The Fervi created an emulsified, slightly thick drink, even without the addition of masa to make it into atole; the Ibarra was a thin, coffee-like drink.

I almost wish I hadn't tried the Fervi, because I wouldn't have noticed some of the problems with the Ibarra except in comparison to a superior product; perhaps I'll find Fervi lurking in the corner of some expatriate Zacatecano's store in Tijuana someday. In the meantime, the remaining Fervi went into that Zacatecan wonder, asado de boda and for now, I will have to console myself that Ibarra is far superior to that gummy Abuelita brand.

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