At a recent family party celebrating his late mother Leda Isabel’s birthday, Pedro Alarcon served meat-stuffed empanadas, churros, small ground-corn flatbreads called arepas, and Venezuelan-style hot chocolate.
The hot chocolate is made from Venezuelan beans and soft white cheese, which may seem strange at first, but is deliciously rich. The combination of cheese and hot chocolate mixes two centuries-old ingredients. Among pre-Columbian Aztecs, cacao beans doubled as money; drinking spiced cocoa was a ritual for warriors and royalty. Cheese arrived with the Spaniards.
Alarcon (above), who is the chef-owner of La Casa de Pedro, a Venezuelan restaurant in Watertown, begins the process by adding chocolate pieces to milk in a saucepan and heating them. He stirs and watches it carefully to keep it from boiling as the dark pieces turn liquid in the hot milk. Alarcon prefers an earthy, slightly spicy, dark Apamate chocolate, and the smoother San Joaquin Venezuelan chocolate, also dark, which he orders from El Rey, the major distributor and maker of single-origin Venezuelan cocoa. He also uses the sweeter Cortes chocolate by Goya.
“As soon as the chocolate starts melting down it becomes a little brown and then becomes darker,” says Alarcon. At that point, he pours the liquid into cups that hold small squares of queso blanco, a popular Latin American melting cheese. “Then you stir before your first sip,” he says.
“My mother made rich, delicious hot chocolate in this style,” says the chef.
Venezuela is “a hot country where the drinking of chocolate is a very prevalent and cherished part of the culinary culture,” says Maricel Presilla, culinary historian and author of “The New Taste of Chocolate” and the cookbook “Gran Cocina Latina.” “Just as you would dunk a piece of bread, members of colonial societies did the same with cheese in hot chocolate,” she says.
The tradition survives. The practice of adding cheese to hot chocolate, whether it’s melted into the drink or as sticks of cheese as an accompaniment, is found mainly in Venezuela, Colombia, and Ecuador according to Presilla. She believes the best chocolate in Latin America comes from Venezuela and Ecuador.
In the early 16th century, Spaniards found the Aztecs mixing cocoa with strong-tasting ingredients like vanilla and chiles. They also found chocolate in savory sauces. Along with cheeses, Europeans added Asian spices like cinnamon to the mix, pairing them with different varieties of beans they found.
Presilla has gathered recipes from throughout Latin America that combine chocolate with unexpected ingredients, including plantains, rum, ground corn, garlic, even tea leaves.
Alarcon, who grew up in Caracas, says his friends knew when his mother was preparing breakfast that included hot chocolate.
“They would call from beneath our balcony,” he says, “hoping to be invited up.”
Rachel Ellner can be reached at email@example.com.
Correction: An earlier version incorrectly referred to La Casa de Pedro.