Colonial Chocolate Spices: Annatto
Visitors to Captain Jackson’s Historic Chocolate Shop are often surprised to discover that our colonial drinking chocolate is seasoned with eight different spices. American Heritage Historic Chocolate is flavored with cinnamon, vanilla, nutmeg, chili pepper, anise, orange zest, salt, and annatto, as well as a small amount of sugar. We will be taking a closer look at each of these spices to explore their origins and uses in colonial American cooking.
Unlike other spices added to our colonial drinking chocolate, annatto is not used as a flavoring. Instead, it is added as a natural food coloring, giving our chocolate a rich reddish brown color. Without the addition of annatto, our chocolate would be a much darker brown similar to the natural color of roasted cocoa beans. Annatto grows as the surrounding outer layer of the seeds within the fruit of the Bixa Orellana plant. Commonly known as achiote, this evergreen plant can be pruned into a shrub or grow into a small tree. The achiote fruits are red spiny bivalve pods containing 10-50 seeds each. Once ripe, these pods are harvested and immediately dried. When they are dry, the pods are easily opened, and the seeds are removed. The seeds are sold whole, ground into a powder, or infused into an extract.
Annatto is native to Central and South America. Long before the arrival of the Spanish, the people of this region used annatto as a food additive, a dye, and a cosmetic product. Annatto was frequently grown alongside cacao trees and was added to drinking chocolate by the Mayans and Aztecs. Annatto was also made into a paste that was applied to the body as a decorative paint, which also helped to repel insects. Annatto was first brought to Europe by Spanish expeditions returning from Central America and was enthusiastically received throughout Europe as a new source of red pigment for food and textile dyes. The Spanish and Portuguese introduced annatto to Asia and India, and today it grows throughout the world in tropical and subtropical regions.
Annatto was used in Colonial America as a red coloring agent for a wide range of goods. Annatto was a popular and accessible textile dye, which could be used to dye yarn and fabric shades of yellow, orange, or red. Shortly after annatto was introduced to Europe, dairy farmers began to add it to cheese and butter to artificially reproduce the natural yellow and orange colors that were associated with high quality dairy products at the time. This practice spread to colonial America, and several varieties of cheese became associated with an orange color that did not occur naturally as part of the cheese making process but was due to the addition of annatto as a food coloring. Colonists also continued the tradition of adding annatto to chocolate to give it a richer, more appetizing color. This ancient practice was brought to Europe from Central America with the introduction of chocolate and was carried back across the Atlantic as American colonists began to produce chocolate of their own. Even before the 18th century, chocolate makers were coloring, as well as flavoring, their chocolate to make it more appealing to their consumers.