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Chocolate nirvana in Santa Fe, N.M.

ArtPetroleum IndustryTony Bennett

SANTA FE, N.M. — It's fair to call me a chocoholic, but it wasn't until a trip to Santa Fe that I realized I'd never had the good stuff.

What was supposed to be a casual late-December exploration of this New Mexican cultural hub wound up becoming a full-on chocolate extravaganza in which I dragged my husband, Jay, to a new exhibit, "New World Cuisine: The Histories of Chocolate, Mate y Más," at Santa Fe's Museum of International Folk Art, and to several chocolate artisans around town.

I blame it on the slice — er, cup — of heaven we tried at Kakawa Chocolate House, just a few minutes' drive from the city's plaza, and I can't say I wasn't warned.

"You're going to get a nice little buzz. Enjoy that," said Tony Bennett, Kakawa's owner, as he placed a 4-ounce ceramic mug of Mayan Full Spice hot chocolate on a saucer in front of me.

This blend of 100% cacao and a proprietary (trust me, I asked) blend of herbs, spices, flowers, nuts and chiles was the closest thing I was going to get to the ancient chocolate elixirs that captivated the pre-Columbian, Mesoamerican elite as early as 4,000 years ago. They called it "food of the gods."

Archaeological evidence found in Chaco Canyon northwest of Santa Fe suggests that native New Mexicans have consumed chocolate for at least 1,000 years, said Mark Sciscenti, a Santa Fe-based chocolate historian, chef instructor and founder of Kakawa who gives chocolate talks and tastings.

In 1524, however, Spanish conquistadors deprived natives of their delicacy for nearly 100 years by halting cacao trading with Mexico. When cacao was later exported to the Old World, its bitter taste was tempered with milk and vanilla, nutmeg, sugar and cinnamon. During the Spanish colonial period, this sweetened version became the most common way to drink chocolate in New Mexico and around the world.

At Kakawa, the faint of heart can choose a European-style hot chocolate with 72% cacao, such as the Tzul, with passionfruit, allspice and tarragon, or the Italian Citrus, with lemon and orange peel, canela, or cinnamon, and Mexican vanilla. But what the heck? When in Santa Fe ...

The Mayan Full Spice had both herbal and fruity aromas but was chile-forward on the tongue. Jay chose the Chili, another Mesoamerican drink of 100% chocolate, Mexican vanilla, coconut sugar, agave nectar and chile. This one was less aggressively spicy and was sweet and creamy.

Intrigued and jacked up on pure cacao goodness, Jay and I were off. At the folk art museum, we saw colorful ceramic, copper and silver chocolate beaters, saucers, pots and jars dating to 750. We nabbed a recipe card for New Mexican hot chocolate by Bill Jamison and Cheryl Alters Jamison, who wrote "Smoke & Spice" and "Tasting New Mexico," among others, and who had just led our class that morning at the Santa Fe School of Cooking.

In one of the small shopping areas along the plaza, we stumbled on a ChocolateSmith stand, and when we expressed interest in the chile pistachio chocolate bark, we were asked, "Green or red?" (the official New Mexico state question). We chose the green chile, nibbling on it as we window-shopped among the plaza's various western wares.

That evening, while we dined at Fuego in La Posada de Santa Fe, a posh hotel off the plaza, we tasted chef Carmen Rodriguez's chocolate mousse, which, the recipe having been passed down from his nana, included cinnamon-sugared tortillas and berries. It reinforced our impression that Santa Fe was proud of its chocolate heritage — and the history and the memories that came with it.

To keep ourselves from overindulging, we saved visits to other chocolate spots for another day, when we perused teapot and skull candy molds and funkily wrapped chocolates and nabbed a freshly made nut cluster at the colorful Todos Santos Chocolates & Confections in a quiet courtyard off the plaza.

One morning, we even ordered lavender hot chocolate at C.G. Higgins Confections, along with a few truffles the dog-friendly shop is known for. Choosing among varieties such as applewood-smoked sea salt, fiesta chile and cinnamon, butter pecan, ginger, anise and pink peppercorn, and blue cheese was among the hardest decisions I've made in my entire chocolate-loving existence.

And best of all, no one seemed to find our breakfast odd.

travel@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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