At Kakawa Chocolate House in Santa Fe, N.M., the concept of try before you buy isn’t just a suggestion. It’s a warning.
The small adobe chocolate emporium takes you on a piquant walk through space and time, serving chocolate drinks filled with varying degrees of cacao, herbs and spices (including the ever-present ground chili). Many of those flavors are surprising to the modern American palate; hence the warning.
A bright-eyed chocolate artisan smiles as I approach the front of the store and asks whether I’ve been in before. Struggling to steer my eyes away from the glass counter, filled with chili caramels, cherry chili truffles, piñon caramels and chocolate-dipped chilies, I tell her that this is my first visit, and she invites me to try something.
Studying the chalkboard menu of elixirs, which include drinks based on historical recipes from Mexico, Central America, North America and Europe, I decide immediately against the American (72 percent chocolate with almond milk) because it seems too typical. Instead, I opt for the Chile, made with 100 percent chocolate and ground chili peppers and sweetened slightly with coconut sugar. I smack my lips at the warm, sultry spice, enjoying it, but still curious to try another.
“I’ll go with the Atole,” I say, opting for a beverage even more foreign, consisting of 100 percent chocolate, blue corn, ground chili and honey.
“Do you want to try that first?” Her question somehow sounds like more of a plea than a query.
I agree, and she hands me a small taste. It’s gritty from the blue corn. Spicy from the chili. Bitter from the chocolate and barely sweet from the honey. She tells me that a lot of people can’t get past the corn texture, but I’m intrigued enough to order a small.
I grab a table and sip my drink out of a tiny blue-and-white ceramic cup. As the minutes pass, my already thick elixir gels as it cools, the corn hardening slightly and the chocolate turning into a kind of potable sludge. I start to feel a bit buzzy from the chocolate, or the chili, or something, and can actually feel a small mustache of perspiration beading along my upper lip from the heat of the spice. It is, in a word, delightful.
I later learn from Kakawa’s owner, Tony Bennett (“like the singer,” he laughs), that trial and error is all part of the experience. In fact, Bennett says that he loves it when people turn their noses up at the drinks, particularly one called the Mayan, which is brimming with herbs, flowers, nuts, spices and chili. It’s a challenge to him and his staff to create something more to the customer’s liking. “Most people in the States are not familiar with drinking chocolate,” he says. “They’re familiar with drinking Nestlé’s Quik and that kind of thing.” Bennett uses a variety of chocolates from France (Valrhona), the United States (Cluizel) and South America (El Rey) to blend Kakawa’s recipes.
Chocolate has been served in liquid form for most of its storied existence, and comparing our American concept of hot chocolate with Kakawa’s is like comparing Thunderbird with a fine wine. That’s because the beverages here were born of a purist’s palate. Chocolate historian and pastry chef Mark Sciscenti originally owned the cafe. Sciscenti became interested in chocolate as a child, living under the thumb of parents who didn’t allow sweets in the house. The only sugary substance his mom and dad let him have was hot chocolate, which he made himself, using unsweetened cocoa and adding sugar to taste. Having never developed a sweet tooth, he preferred it very dark.
As he grew older and sampled more chocolate, Sciscenti began reading up on the history of cacao and drinking chocolates, which date back to 2000 B.C. in what’s now Mexico and Central America. Like him, the chocolate connoisseurs of old preferred a less-sweet drinking chocolate, adding all kinds of chilies, herbs, spices and nuts, and consumed it during rituals and celebrations. Eventually, they began trading the cacao bean, and archaeological evidence places it in the southwestern United States as early as about A.D. 770.
“I got totally and utterly fascinated by the whole idea of what they were drinking and what did it taste like,” Sciscenti told me in a phone interview. “The kind of varieties they were growing were incredible, unparalleled flavors, not very bitter at all. I wanted to mimic those flavors, because I love chocolate and I like drinking it, and I wanted to see what they were drinking.”
What started out as a hobby — creating historically accurate concoctions — eventually became a business when he opened Kakawa in 2005. Although he has since left that business (it’s a long story), Sciscenti continues to experiment with drinks on his own and travels the country lecturing about the history of chocolate.
For much of that history, cacao products have been celebrated for their medicinal properties. That remains true today, and as the owner of Kakawa, Bennett is quick to point out the health benefits of chocolate, sharing stories about how chocolate has been found to decrease the risk of stroke and heart attack. Harvard researchers recently discovered that drinking two cups of hot chocolate daily could actually help fight dementia, he adds.
It’s enough to make a person consider ordering another cup. Or at least nominating Bennett to become a case study.
“Yeah, well, I’m drinking a quart a day, and it’s not helping me,” he laughs. “I’m going to keep trying and hope that it unplugs something up there.”
Kakawa Chocolate House
1050 E. Paseo de Peralta
Santa Fe, N.M.
Chocolate elixirs are $3.50 for a small (3 ounces) and $6.25 for a large (6 ounces).
Silver is a freelance writer based in Chicago. Her Web site is www.thekatesilver.com.