Chocolate Completo: Colombia's Sinful Cheese & Chocolate Drink
Image Credit: PEXELS

CHOCOLATE. We eat it when we are sad, or angry, or feeling particularly indulgent. Top it off with a generous helping of gooey, decadent cheese, and you have got yourself the perfect calorie-pumping, endorphin-releasing cheat snack. 

In Colombia though, chocolate and cheese is not a snack conjured out of midnight culinary pursuits; it is a legitimate meal Colombians indulge in. It is understandable though. After all, Colombia is the birthplace of cacao. And Colombians have been holding their chocolate concoction close to their hearts for generations. Known alternatively as either Chocolate completo or Chocolate santafereño, the beverage combines the rich flavours of sweet hot chocolate with savoury cheese. 

As fancy as the name might sound, preparing Chocolate Completo is rather uncomplicated — it involves the use of breakable blocks, called pastillas, infused with cloves and cinnamon. While some pastillas are sweetened, most are not, prompting the addition of sugar or panela. The mix is stirred in a traditional aluminium pot called a chocolatera, using a wooden whisk called a molinillo. Just before serving, generous dollops of slightly salty white cheese, known as Queso Campesino, are added. 

The story of Chocolate Completo traces its roots back to the ancient civilisations of Central and South America, where the cacao bean holds sacred significance.

In modern-day Mexico and Guatemala, which once was the breeding ground for the Mesoamerican civilisation, the Lacandon and Manche Maya developed sophisticated techniques to cultivate cacao, vanilla, and annatto, collectively known as the "chocolate triad." Chocolate originated from these regions, where the cacao tree thrived under specific climate, altitude, and soil conditions. Cacao was considered a precious and scarce commodity by pre-Hispanic cultures, particularly outside the production regions.  


The cultivation of cacao in Mesoamerica can be traced back to the Early Formative period (2000-1000 BC). The Olmec culture was likely the first to domesticate cacao and develop the complex process of turning it into chocolate. Evidence found in Olmec pottery at the San Lorenzo site confirms the use of cacao-based beverages. The Olmecs also established the symbolic and ritual associations of cacao with blood, sacrifice, power, and the elite. Cacao drinks were consumed by Mesoamerican nobility during official meetings, marriage ceremonies, and as offerings for rulers.

The decorated vessels used for drinking cacao held great ritualistic significance for different Mesoamerican groups, symbolising nobility and power. Mayan glyphs on Classic period vases revealed the connection between these vessels and cacao, describing their contents and ownership. Hieroglyphic inscriptions on ornate earthenware from the Classic period confirmed the existence of various types of cacao and cacao beverages. Chemical compounds found in vessel residues, such as theobromine and caffeine, provided further evidence of their use for drinking chocolate. The distribution of these vessels across different regions and time periods indicated changes in the flavours added to the drink within the Mayan area.

The arrival of the Spanish colonisers disrupted these traditional systems and production methods. The newcomers often claimed the most fertile lands suitable for cacao cultivation, as seen in Chontalpa, Tabasco. 

Bernardino de Sahagún, a Spanish missionary priest and ethnologist, mentioned how Mexica noblemen consumed cacao mixed with vanilla, ear flower, or honey. Pre-Hispanic preparations involved roasted and ground cacao, with a small amount of cooked maize added for thickening. Other ingredients like vanilla, ear flower, and annatto were incorporated during the milling process. The Spaniards found the traditional chocolate beverage unappealing, particularly its foaminess. Over time, the conquistadors developed a preference for consuming hot cacao, which they called chocolate. 

Historical accounts describe chocolate as an addictive drink consumed by individuals from all social strata, particularly the high society of New Spain. Women, in particular, became fond of chocolate and often required it during religious services. The connection between women and chocolate extended to its use in love potions, poisons, enchantments, and as a gesture of affection. The common people typically added cacao, achiote, maize, chilles, and a touch of anise.

In Europe, hot chocolate gained popularity as a sweet and fashionable indulgence throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. Maria Kijac's book, The South American Table, reveals that when the transformed chocolate made its way back to Central and South America, it was embraced by the upper classes in Colombia and Venezuela. However, the high cost of cacao in the 1800s made daily consumption a luxury limited to the privileged few.

The democratisation of chocolate began with culinary adaptations that brought down its price, making it accessible to miners and farmers in the region. As industrialisation took hold, chocolate became a staple in mountain diets and a central part of afternoon snacking and socialisation during the latter half of the 19th century.

While the exact origins of the addition of cheese to chocolate completo remain unclear, it is likely that cheese found its way into the mixture through the treats traditionally served alongside it. Pan de yuca, a large, flat cassava cheese bread, and almojábanas, smaller round cheese bread, are both topped with additional cheese, creating a symphony of flavours. This cultural practice gradually extended to the pairing of cheese with sweet hot chocolate.