I know, I know, herbal tea, Chai, green tea, hot latte; all are fabulous treats for a paddler after an exciting session in the swell. Especially at this time of year, when the temperature drops dramatically for many of us. But let's face it: nothing beats the pleasure of a cup of good, old fashioned hot chocolate, just like the one we used to crave when we were kids. Remember when you got home after an afternoon spent tossing snowballs at the other camp from your impregnable snow fortress? I know people who live in Hawaii and others in southern California, where snow isn't exactly the norm. Still, they harbour the same fond memories of hot cocoa topped with melting marshmallows as I do. Instead of savouring every drop after a skating class, their mom may have greeted them with steaming hot cocoa after a surf lesson or when they got home from school. Hot chocolate seems to have been accepted as a universal comfort food. Hot chocolate is in, and no longer considered a forbidden pleasure for adults.
A treasure fit for kings!
That's great news, because since the days when European aristocrats drank it 10 times daily (with all the symptoms of a hardcore addiction), hot chocolate has never been so good. The reason is simple: mankind has never before enjoyed such a wide array of high quality chocolate from many excellent sources. One can even enjoy guilt-free Fair Trade chocolate sold at health food stores and various gourmet shops. But as elementary as it appears, hot chocolate has always remained special and exotic.
Long before the British firm Fry & Sons found a way to turn cocoa into a candy bar in mid-nineteen century, chocolate was known served as a hot beverage. So much so that the etymological Mayan root of the word chocolate (xocoatl) itself means noise - xoco - and water - atl - which refers to the noise of the frother dissolving chocolate in water. For centuries, Mayan and Aztec communities used roasted cocoa beans to make a bitter-tasting concoction to which they added spices and chillies. They drank it often, just as we drink coffee today. The first Europeans to enjoy hot chocolate were the people in the court of King Charles V of Spain in the early 16th century. The cocoa beans were brought back to king and country by Spanish explorer and mercenary Hernando Cortes after his first trip to Aztec territory. Not only did the Spaniard kill Aztec emperor Montezuma and steal all his treasures, he got the precious recipe for hot chocolate from Montezuma himself, who served the hot liquid in gold goblets as a friendly welcome to Cortes and his men. The rage for hot chocolate spread throughout Europe and was soon being enjoyed in courts across the continent, often mixed with hot and spicy wine heavily sweetened with sugar.
This passion for hot chocolate lasted through the Victorian era. By then, it was served in elegant porcelain containers imported from China called chocolate pots in which one could melt the chocolate, froth it with a special whisk and drink it in the same vessel. French and British aristocrats were so fond of their gracious chocolate pots that they would not travel for more than a day without it. Although some gourmet shops still sell this lovely object, it's certainly not the best piece of equipment to carry with you on a kayak or canoe expedition…
Back to the basics of hot chocolate
Except in Mexico and the rest of Latin America, the passion for hot chocolate slowly cooled with the dawn of the industrial era. At the same time, it became a democratic treat when the Dutch found a way to make a sweet chocolate powder that was easy to dissolve in water or milk. This ancestor of our beloved Nestle Quick made hot chocolate easily available and turned it into a child's pleasure instead of a fashionable delicacy for the rich and famous. Once Fry and Sons found a way to turn chocolate into a candy bar in 1847, chocolate moved from the beverage to the food category.
In Mexico and Latin America though, it has always been part of daily life and can be simply prepared with water and a bit or sugar or it can be turned into a decadent treat or dessert for special occasions by replacing water with milk, cream and, occasionally, by adding egg yolks. In North America, New York chef Maury Rubin is responsible for bringing back the taste for unforgettable hot chocolate. He first put it on his menu in 1992, updating the very rich and creamy hot chocolate recipe that made upscale Parisian tea room Angelina's famous since 1903.
A master chef who runs a chocolate shop and candy factory in Canada told me recently that there are probably two main reasons for this amazing comeback: first, because top quality chocolate is now widely available. Secondly, because the film Chocolat, starring French actress Juliette Binoche and American star Johnny Depp, had a huge impact. In Chocolat, the character played by Binoche brings a sleepy community back to life with her wonderful creations of hot chocolates made in the old Latin American way with exotic spices, chillies, rich cream, vanilla beans and so on. "This had a tremendous impact on the sale of chocolate, especially for top quality hot chocolate mixes with chillies", says Stéphane Champagne, an artisan chocolate master for 15 years. Champagne himself prefers a mix of 50 % cocoa powder and 50 % chocolate chunks because when blended together they provide the best of both worlds: the strong, slightly bitter taste of good quality cocoa beans found in cocoa powder, and the silky, creamy texture of good chocolate butter found in chunks of chocolate.
A simple recipe to make your own
Here's the recipe: for each cup, dissolve one tablespoon of topnotch cocoa powder with a bit of hot water until you get a muddy paste. At this point, you can also add a bit of sugar, honey or maple syrup to taste (if you like your mixture on the sweeter side). Then, add hot milk with two to three tablespoons of grated chocolate and whisk until dissolved. You can add whatever you feel like to personalize your favorite paddling beverage: orange rind, caramel, vanilla extract, egg yolks, whipped cream, cinnamon, chillies, cloves, crystalized ginger, fresh mint or alcohol like Cognac or Grand Marnier. You can also substitute white chocolate for dark chocolate but you will lose what makes hot chocolate memorable: the cocoa butter that is its raison d'être...
You may decide to use only chocolate chunks instead of a mixture of half cocoa powder and half chocolate chips. Your beverage will be smoother and creamier but slightly blander too. It's a matter of taste… Whatever combination you experiment with, hot chocolate is certainly the perfect paddling complement. It's also the best way to enjoy winter, isn't it? Cheers and Happy New Year!