Hangover cure, medicinal wonder-drink and Valentine’s Day gift: the history of our obsession with chocolate

Sara Pennell, a senior lecturer in early modern British history at the University of Roehampton, charts the history of our love of chocolate...

This article was first published in February 2014

A chocolate house in Georgian times © TopFoto

Visitors to the early Georgian chocolate kitchen at Hampton Court Palace will be able to experience the complexities and sophistication of preparing that once-exotic luxury, now snack-time essential: chocolate.

Given the specialised equipment and exquisite utensils they will see on display for the making and consuming chocolate as a beverage (the form in which it was first consumed in England in the 1650s), the connection between chocolate and Georgian courtly consumption seems natural. But we need to be wary of seeing it just as the preserve of British monarchs and their palace entourages, especially by the middle of the 18th century.

As with those other new hot drink sensations of the Restoration – tea and coffee – chocolate was first understood not only as a literally outlandish beverage, but as a medicinal wonder-drink.

In January 1697, John Houghton, apothecary and publisher of the weekly Collection for Improvement of Husbandry and Trade, was offering his own chocolate ‘nuts’ for sale, both plain and spiced, recommending them as “a great helper of bad stomachs, and restorative”. This was certainly what Pepys used it for, attempting to soothe his very sore head after Charles II’s coronation on 23 April 1661.

Recipes also suggest that chocolate consumption, while originating in courtly and diplomatic circles, quickly moved beyond these consumers. The earliest known English-language recipes for preparing chocolate as a beverage have strong connections with the Iberian peninsula.

The earliest dated recipe, “To dresse Chocolatte”, in the manuscript recipe book of Lady Ann Fanshawe (1625–80), held by the Wellcome Library, is clearly dated ‘Madrid 10 August 1665’. Accompanied by a contemporary sketch of a chocolate pot and molinillo [wood whisk], the recipe appears to have come into her collection when she accompanied her husband, Sir Richard, on his embassy to Madrid between 1664–6.

The Fanshawe recipe is a variant on the Hispanic adaptations of indigenous central American chocolate preparations, but the only two recipes in English printed recipe books published prior to 1700 already show how chocolate was being absorbed into English dishes, and made palatable to English tastes.

Despite the exotic ring, Hannah Woolley’s 1670 recipe for “Chaculato” simply adds chocolate to claret, and thickens it with egg yolk. The anonymous author of the 1695 The True Way of Preserving and Candying, and Making Several Sorts of Sweetmeat, provides a recipe for “Chocolet-Puffs”, which adds grated chocolate to an otherwise very familiar pastrywork recipe.


‘The Chocolate House’, 1787 by Thomas Rowlandson. (Heritage Image Partnership Ltd/Alamy)
 

The uses of chocolate as a flavouring, rather than simply as a drink, expanded in the early 18th century. The 1702 translation of Massialot’s Cuisinier Roial et Bourgeois (first published Paris, 1691, and in English as The Court and Country Cook) contained two recipes for “sweet” dishes, one a chocolate cream and the other chocolate “bisket”, a sweetmeat.

Another manuscript collection (also now in the Wellcome Library, dated to between 1675 and 1725), records “chocalate puddings”, with sweet egg custard flavoured with chocolate and then baked in a dish with a rim of puff pastry.

The appearance in the specialist confectionery recipe book, Mrs Mary Eales’s Receipts (London, 1718) of a recipe for chocolate almonds is perhaps the earliest printed recipe using chocolate in a form that pre-figures its later, confectionery uses.

Chocolate-drinking and eating amongst the Georgians is considerably less written about than coffee and tea-drinking, but that may be because we haven’t been looking for it, and because it was adopted without producing social disruption – unlike the horror of tea-drinking servants, and a new culture of male sociability in coffeehouses.

In the ‘public sphere’, chocolate houses did spring up, such as the St James’ Chocolate House, but not all sat in the elite Augustan ‘West End’: for example, Grace Tosier (the wife of the George I’s chocolate-maker) operated her own commercial outlet in Blackheath in the 1720s.

And chocolate-drinking was no less a domestic activity in the 1720s than tea-drinking. Although Joseph van Aken’s 1720s genre painting, now known as ‘A Family taking Tea’ (Tate Collection), is currently on display in the British Library Georgians Revealed exhibition as a depiction of polite tea consumption, look closer at the tea table centre-stage: alongside the tea bowls are upturned chocolate cups waiting to be filled from the chocolate pot being brought to the table by the male servant entering at the right.

The annotation to a recipe for cracknels (a type of biscuit) in Elizabeth Moxon’s 1741 English Housewifery published not in London, but in Leeds, states that “They are proper to eat with Chocolate” suggests that drinking chocolate was easily imagined as part of her non-metropolitan, non-courtly readers’ diets.


A maid carrying drinking chocolate on a tray, in a c1743 engraving by AH Payne. (Wellcome Library)
 

To be sure, chocolate was not cheap (Houghton was selling it at between 4 and 10 shillings a pound in 1697), but it was not beyond the pockets of middling householder by the mid-18th century, who consumed it not only as a beverage, but also to flavour a repertoire of sweet dishes, familiar on genteel Georgian tables and sideboards.

By 1737, The Whole Duty of a Woman: or, an Infallible Guide to the Fair Sex listed chocolate amongst those items absolutely necessary to take from the city to the country in the summer, just in case one’s local grocer did not sell it. Chocolate was certainly easily obtainable in the Somerset town of Wells in the 1720s, when the physician Claver Morris recorded drinking and prescribing it as part of his own dietary regime.

The equipment initially intended for the preparation of drinking chocolate also appears to have been absorbed into the kitchen drawer. In her 1747 text, The Art of Cookery, Made Plain and Easy, Hannah Glasse writes of the ‘chocolate mill’ or molenillo as “the best way to whip sillibubs” and to be kept “for that purpose”: evidence that the utensil once unusual enough for Ann Fanshawe to sketch it, had become a multifunctional tool in the Georgian kitchen.

Sara Pennell is a senior lecturer in early modern British history at the University of Roehampton.

Read: How to make 17th-century chocolate for Valentine's Day

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