Florence Magazine – EN

An Exquisite Discovery: The Grand Duchy of Tuscany and the Chocolate Way

21 March 2013  |  Published in Florence for Children, History, Wine and Food by


Association Mus.e Firenze, texts by Ruby Villareal, translated by Lauren Mac Laughlin

“Take roasted cacao, cleaned and coarsely ground; enough fresh jasmine blossoms to mix with said cacao, make layer upon layer in a box, or other container, and leave it rest for 24 hours…Then take eight pounds of good quality, dry white sugar. Three ounces of quality vanilla. Six ounces of fine quality cinnamon. Two pinches of ambergris and in this manner, you make chocolate…”

,KˠThis is how one prepared jasmine scented chocolate in Florence – a recipe that, at the time, was naturally kept a secret and which was relished by the Grand Duke of Tuscany Cosimo III de’ Medici and his court.
Cacao arrived in Florence at the beginning of the 17th century, presented as a gift to Ferdinando de’ Medici from the navigator Francesco d’Antonio Carletti who had just returned from a long voyage around the world. Cacao immediately aroused curiosity and interest; xocol-atl was a ritual drink of the Aztecs and was even offered to the Spanish conquistador Cortès. Its plant, the theobroma cacao, was a “food of the gods” and was meticulously described by Bernardino de Sahagùn in his Historia general de las cosas de Nueva España.

quetzalcoatl-dans-le-codex-telleriano-remensisBut let’s start from the beginning. Legend has it that one day, Quetzalcoatl, the god of air, came down from the sky, surprising the Toltecs with his sparkling clothes and long beard. The god planted a cacao tree in the earth of Tula and when it bore its first fruit, he taught the women how to roast the beans, grind it and mix it with water, so creating the xocol-atl, which means “bitter water.” From that day forward, the cacao tree grew rigorously in the land of the Aztecs, taking the name kakawa, which in the Nahuatl language means “food of the gods.” Its beans had a dual usage: the largest ones were used as money – the seeds being called amygdala pecuniariae, “money almonds” (two beans for a fish, 200 beans for a turkey) – and the smaller beans were the essential ingredient for the pungent and invigorating drink, xocol-atl.

cargas de cacaoMen transported the beans on their shoulders (their unit of measure being the carga, in other words the maximum load, or cargo, a man could carry), while production was left to the women. Their work was to grind the dried beans with a metate (volcanic stone), mix it with powdered cornmeal, vanilla and spices, and then finally water. Then, to make the mixture light and frothy, they poured the liquid from one jicara to another. It was a vigorous and refreshing drink that was reserved for nobles, priests and warriors. We know all this thanks to Fra Bernardino de Sahagùn, a Franciscan missionary who attentively collected and immortalized the legend of cacao, along with pictograms of the Nahuatl language, the Castilian translations, and images. Bernardino settled in Mexico alongside Spanish colonists and managed to examine the world of the Aztecs with infinite attentiveness and patience, writing down their extraordinary history called Historia general de las cosa de Nueva España. With these twelve tomes written in two languages (Nahuatl and Castilian), Bernardino succeeded in recording the beliefs, customs, history and nature of the Aztec civilization up until the Spanish conquest. Furthermore, legend has it that Emperor Moctezuma presented a cupxocol-atl to Hernan Cortès, who was mistakenly thought to be the incarnation of the god Quetzalcoatl.

bernardino de sahagun

From that moment on, xocol-atl began its move towards Europe, even if initially its recipe remained behind the walls of a convent in Central America. It was probably thanks to the monastic orders that cacao reached Spain and from there immediately spread throughout European courts. It was in this way that cacao made landfall in Europe, devilishly creeping its way into the most refined palates of Spain, France and England, with the very same happening in Tuscany at the Medici court. The gift-bearer from the New World was Francesco d’Antonio Carletti, a navigator who had just circled the globe. His trip lasted twelve years and as soon as he returned to Florence, Carletti didn’t hesitate to relish the latest “exquisite discovery” upon the Grand Duke Ferdinando I de’ Medici. The Medici court welcomed the novelty with great enthusiasm and xocol-atl was eaten in varying ways, among the most celebrated being that of Cosimo III de’ Medici, recorded many years later by his physician Francesco Redi. Jasmine scented chocolate was born with its fresh and intense aroma of flowers and it quickly became a favorite of the Grand Duke and his court.
Over time, cacao was mixed with sugar and the drink of the Aztecs went from cold and bitter to hot and sweet. In this way mancerinas was created in Spain, and then trembleuses in France; special porcelain cups were even produced for consuming this precious, red-hot liquid.
From the beginning of its time in Europe, cacao was critically acclaimed and it grew to become the most discussed protagonist at family celebrations, excessive ceremonies and festive events, enchanting both young and old alike.

cardinal Ferdinando de' MediciThe Medici court was again linked to the history of chocolate when in 1577 the precious writings of Fra Bernardino de Sahagùn – so dangerously honest – were put on the King of Spain’s index and were seized. The monk in charge of transporting the tomes, Fra Rodrigo de Sequera, probably had some misgivings about the assignment and while in Rome, he handed over the collection to Ferdinando de’ Medici (a cardinal at the time, who would later become the Grand Duke of Tuscany).
The volumes are listed on the inventory of the Medici wardrobe in 1587, the exact year that Ferdinando became Grand Duke (“a book of pictures from the Indies… ‘with costumes of’ the Mexicans”). Its illustrations inspired the decorations found on the vaulted ceilings of the Uffizzi’s Grand Ducal Armory, painted by Ludocivo Buti around 1588. And so safeguarded by the Medici, Fra Bernardino’s masterpiece reaches us today, conserved in the Laurentian Library, listed under the Florentine Codex.

The activity “An Exquisite Discovery: the Grand Duke of Tuscany and the Chocolate Way” is presented by the museum of Palazzo Vecchio during the Easter season – a period that is traditionally linked with chocolate – and traces cacao’s journey from its origins to its arrival in Europe. Precious objects such as the metate in volcanic stone, refined facsimiles like Bernardino de Sahagùn’s Historia, a colorful trousseau typical of the Aztec world and a rich display of images, sounds and smells will transport visitors into the fascinating world of chocolate, which will end – naturally– in sweetness.

Mus.e in Palazzo Vecchio
logo Mus.e

For information and reservations:
Tel. 055-2768224 055-2768558
E-Mail info@muse.comune.fi.it

Main sponsor:                       sponsor squisita scoperta-1

Partners:                    ambasciata messico                                 biblioteca medicea laurenziana                     

Many thanks to:         logogiunti


Your Responses


Recent Posts


One-Click connection with: