Born to a Chilean father and Mexican mother, Yissel Salafsky grew up drinking Mexican hot chocolate: smooth, spicy, and bittersweet.
“Over the years one of the most popular brands of Mexican chocolate available in grocery stores, Abuelita chocolate, was purchased by Nestlé,” she said. “They changed the ingredients a bit, adding fillers and emulsifiers because they are cheaper than cacao. It was no longer the taste I remembered from my childhood.”
Yissel was studying at the University of Arizona in 2003 when her then-boyfriend, David Salafsky, a masters’ student in public health, traveled to Oaxaca, Mexico. “He wanted to see a cacao tree. Mexico is the closest place to the U.S. where they grow.”
“David doesn’t speak Spanish,” Yissel said, “but he befriended a family who showed him the cacao trees on their farm. And he brought back real chocolate, like what I had growing up, as much as he could put in his suitcases.”
Too much: Yissel and David took the extra chocolate to Tucson’s Heirloom Farmers’ Market. “It was going to be a one-time thing,” she said. But the delicacy was enormously popular, so the young couple saved the money, and traveled together back to Oaxaca.
“David took me to meet the family,” Yissel said. “I speak Spanish, so I was able to learn more about the family and their chocolate. They are third generation chocolate farmers, growing both cacao and coffee. The beans come from their small farms in Chiapas and Tabasco.
“They grow criollo cacao beans, preferred for their flavor but lower-yield than traditional forastero beans. The chocolate is darker and has a rougher texture than what we’re used to in the U.S.,” she said.
The couple traveled throughout the region learning about chocolate lore. “The indigenous population is still very much intact in Oaxaca,” Yissel said. “They’ll show you how to make your own chocolate, add your own ingredients. The main street is called Chocolate Row.”
The couple agreed to purchase cacao from their new Mexican friends every winter. “We liked getting back to more traditional food, fewer ingredients,” Yissel said, “and the idea that we could help a family in Oaxaca.”
With a seasonal license, the couple began their venture, Xocolatl. “It’s not certified organic, but the farm doesn’t use pesticides or fertilizers. The cacao grows as it would wild, as it has for centuries.”
Over the years the two families—Yissel and David are now married with three young children—refined the recipes together, tweaking the traditional Mexican ground cacao beans, almonds, cinnamon, and cane sugar ingredients to create a darker blend.
“That was before drug trafficking got really bad,” Yissel said. “At first the chocolate was a fun, feel-good thing. Now it is about continuing in spite of everything. Our friends suffer from lack of tourism. They thought we would stop coming as well.”
What began as a romantic adventure has become a mission symbolic of enduring friendship across a troubled border. Chocolate is a simple joy, connecting disparate people in the face of social struggle. Yissel said: “It is our labor of love.”
While weather remains cool in Tucson, you can find Xocolatl at Heirloom Farmers’ Market at Rillito Park, or year-round at: casadexocolatl.com.