It had been seven years since Esperanza felt the touch of a man. Within an hour of the last time she’d made love, she was on a bus with her two leather bags, on her way from the capital city of Guanajuato to the small village of Barra de Navidad.
In Guanajuato, she’d lived and worked with the best and most adored baker in the city. She was an apprentice to Doña Eva. Doña Eva was not only a master baker but also a gourmet chef and had studied her trade in France. It was Doña Eva who had written the letter of introduction to Doña Luz when Esperanza decided it was time to leave Guanajuato.
Doña Eva and her apprentice made all the pastries in the bakery, which was attached to the house, during the early hours of the morning. Esperanza hated that her workday began at two a.m. and swore that if she ever had a place of her own, it would open at a reasonable hour.
By seven in the morning, all the pastries were loaded into a van driven by Eva’s husband, Don José Gutierrez. Don José then delivered the pastries to Panadería Gutierrez, located downtown. This “bakery” only featured and sold the goods. No actual baking took place in there. The most attractive of fresh breads were thoughtfully displayed on shelves in front of the huge picture window. This and the aroma of the sweet bread were all the marketing the Gutierrezes needed to sell out every day.
No one could walk by without being seduced by the smell or beautiful display of conchas, niño envuelto, pan fino, pata de mula, orejas, quequitos, pan picón, bisquetes, or even the savory bolillos used for tortas. All the Mexican favorites were there, but what really made the Panadería Gutierrez stand out were the products of Doña Eva’s French training. Her bakery was the only one in town that had puff pastries and croissants for sale. The most popular of all, of course, were the chocolate-filled croissants made by none other than Esperanza herself.
Locals and tourists alike flowed into the bakery at a steady pace every day until the shop sold out. Then one day, local women started lining up and buying all the chocolate croissants they could afford, ignoring the rest of the delights on display. This had not always been the case, but Esperanza figured out the reason for her croissants’ popularity only days after a slip of her butcher knife.
Though there was no baking done on Sundays, Esperanza still put in a full day’s work in the bakery. The only condition Esperanza insisted on when she and Doña Eva came to terms on her apprenticeship was that, instead of store-bought chocolate bars being used in the chocolate croissants, Esperanza be allowed to make the chocolate herself. Doña Eva agreed, as long as that didn’t interfere with the regular baking schedule.
As soon as the terms were agreed to, Esperanza slung one of her two leather bags onto the table and said, “Good, I’ll get started right away.” She overturned the bag, dumping the entire contents onto the table: cocoa bean pods.
For two years prior to her coming to Guanajuato, Esperanza had been under the tutelage of one Don Miguel Garcia, a chocolatier in Oaxaca. It was Don Miguel who had written the letter of introduction to Doña Eva when circumstances warranted that Esperanza vacate Oaxaca.
It was on step five of Esperanza’s cocoa powder–making process when she got distracted and nicked her finger with the butcher knife one Sunday.
Step one: Remove beans from pods.
Step two: Place beans in a bucket lined with banana leaves to ferment for three days.
Step three: Remove beans from the bucket and spread them out to dry for a few days.
Step four: Roast beans in the oven until shells crack open, then remove and let cool.
Step five: Separate nibs from their shell, finely chop, then grind them into a powder.
The entire process took exactly one week. So, when Esperanza cut herself and bled all over the chopped cocoa nibs, she was faced with a decision. Dry up as much blood as she could with a towel, or throw the entire batch out and lose a week’s worth of work. Rinsing the nibs was out of the question, as much of them turned to powder in the chopping process. She did the best she could, but there was no doubt in her mind that there was some residue of her blood in that batch of cocoa powder.
That Sunday’s blood-laced batch of cocoa powder made enough chocolate to fill six day’s worth of croissants. By Tuesday of that week, rumors started to spread among a select few of the bakery’s patrons. By the following week, after successfully making chocolate without cutting herself, the rumors stopped, and the sales of croissants resumed their normal pace. But the whole event made Esperanza curious, and she decided to conduct a little experiment.
This time, instead of cutting herself, Esperanza pricked her finger with a sewing needle and squeezed out several drops of blood into her batch of chocolate. By Tuesday of that week, she started getting the feedback she was looking for. It was her blood.
After the confirmation, Esperanza decided to omit this secret ingredient from her chocolate and, in due time, the spike in sales and buzz about the croissants subsided. But the experimenting was far from done. She requested that Don José add more bean pods to the weekly shopping list. In addition to the chocolate for the croissants, she started making individual candies. She used an icing tube for decorating cakes to squeeze out spiral-shaped drops of chocolate delight.
Her first testers were Doña Eva and her husband. “Here. I want you to be the first to try my chocolates,” Esperanza said to Doña Eva.
“Ay, no,” the Doña replied. “After years of being a baker, I have no desire for sweets.”
“I know,” responded Esperanza as she handed over a chocolate wrapped in a piece of wax paper. “That’s why I put chili in these.”
The Doña reluctantly took the chocolate and put it in her mouth. Although she did tilt her head and raise her eyebrows in approval, Esperanza could tell that the candy was still too sweet for Doña Eva.
“Señor?” Esperanza said, holding out another chocolate. Unlike his wife, Don José still had an affinity for sweets, though one could never tell from the absence of any belly fat around his waist. It was ironic that, of the two, his wife was the hefty one.
“Claro que sí!” the Don said and popped the chocolate into his mouth. The smile on his face matched his approval. “Son ricos! Hay más?” The Don wanted more.
“Sorry, Señor. Only one per customer today.”
One would think that the chocolates had instilled an immediate effect on Don José, the way he talked so fast and so loud, but that was just his normal voice. “Vamos a venderlos?” He seemed to shout the question.
“No, Señor. These are just a little result of some experimenting I am doing. You can subtract the cost of these chocolates from my pay.” With that, Esperanza walked out of the room and waited patiently for the results of her little experiment.
It wasn’t until late that night that Esperanza got the results she was waiting for. The sound of Doña Eva and her husband in the throes of passion traveled down the hall, over the stairs, through the kitchen, across the bakery, and under the door of Esperanza’s bedroom to wake her out of a sound sleep. Only God himself knew the last time the elderly couple had made love, and never had it been so passionate.