What today might be termed hot chocolate was prepared and tasted for the first time in Europe in the remarkable natural setting of waterfalls and grottoes at the Monasterio de Piedra, one of the most important heritage sites in Aragón.
Located near the village of Nuévalos in the Monasterio de Piedra Natural Park in the Calatayud region of Zaragoza, this is a nature lover’s paradise two and a half hours by car from the capital.
Despite the impressive natural scenery, the monastery still manages to draw the most attention in this area. Its construction was started in the late 12th century by monks from the Cistercian Order and the site has since been visited, year after year, by thousands of people. In 1835 it was temporarily abandoned, but purchased five years later by an individual who turned it into a tourist site. The monastery holds eight centuries of history since its consecration in 1218.
The site has numerous attractions including a walking tour with trails set in lush greenery. This exceptional spot is a haven of tranquility where the gentle sounds of cascading waters flowing into the monastery’s garden carry the visitor away.
The fifty-metre-tall Cola de Caballo is the most famous waterfall in this area. Surprisingly, the waterfall can be viewed from the inside, where a natural cave with stunning stalactites can be found. Caprichosa is another well-known waterfall. By contrast, you can contemplate the still waters of Lago del Espejo (Mirror Lake), a spectacle of serenity.
It is unsurprising that the Cistercian monks found here the perfect place to build the Monasterio Cisterciense Santa María de Piedra, its full name. Today, it is still possible to visit its interior.
The rooms surrounding the old cloister like the chapter hall, the abbey church, the wine cellar, and the calefactory or warming house especially stand out. Also, there are the old kitchen, where the continent’s first hot chocolate was prepared, and the granary, which is now the Wine Museum of Denominación de Origen Calatayud. The museum is a testament to how this religious community fostered the cultivation of vineyards in this region starting at the end of the 13th century.
The story goes that a monastery monk named friar Jerónimo Aguilar accompanied Hernán Cortés on his voyage to Mexico, then known as Nueva España. From these travels, Aguilar brought back cocoa seeds, something entirely unknown to Europeans at the time. Additionally, Aguilar had a recipe for turning these seeds into liquid, which the abbot of his religious order, don Antonio de Álvaro, concocted for the first time.
And it was in the kitchen ovens of this emblematic monastery in 1534 where the first cup of hot chocolate was tasted, which included sugar, cinnamon and vanilla to sweeten its flavour. Not only was it the first hot chocolate in Spain, but the first in all of Europe.
Little by little the monks began to introduce cocoa to their diet. Allegedly, it was believed that because cocoa was not mentioned as foodstuff in the Old Testament, its consumption therefore did not violate the monks’ fasting. In any case, the monks found in the cocoa drink enough energy to help ward off hunger pangs.
What was completely novel for one side of the world was something much more commonplace for those on the other side of the Atlantic. A still-preserved letter written by Hernán Cortés mentioned Aztec mythology and described chocolate as the “manna of the gods.” This culinary delicacy was also used as a currency, which underlines the cocoa seed’s importance for these people.
To learn more about the curious origins of chocolate in Europe, one can these days visit an exhibition at the monastery called Historia del chocolate en piedra. There you can discover interesting insights into chocolate, such as the Aztec term for this delicacy: ‘xocolatl.’
You can also read this article in Spanish here.
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