One of the first articles I ever posted here was about one of my pet peeves, the regular appearance of what is known as sweet or eating chocolate in Regency novels. That would have been completely impossible, as chocolate in that form was not available until the 1880s. Prior to that time, chocolate was used as a flavoring, most popularly dissolved in liquid and enjoyed as a hot drink. But our Regency ancestors did not just tear open a packet of sweetened brownish powder and add some hot milk or water when they wanted a cup of drinking chocolate. The making of a cup of drinking chocolate in the Regency was a great deal more complicated than it is today and the resulting brew was much lighter in color, significantly thicker and the froth on the top was considered critical.
The Regency recipe for the luxury drink of chocolate, why it was not as dark as the chocolate we drink today and how the all-important froth was achieved …
The Mesoamericans were the first peoples to consume chocolate, and they did so as a dark, spicy drink with a frothy head, which was served at room temperature. The first European to see cacao beans was likely Christopher Columbus, who, on his third voyage to the West Indies, in 1502, captured a Mayan trading canoe. He assumed that they protected the black beans they carried because they considered them a form of currency. He never knew those beans could be made into a drink the natives considered to be an aphrodisiac and would become known in Europe as "the food of the gods." When the Spaniards, under Hernán Cortés, invaded and conquered the Yucatan and eventually all of Mexico, about fifteen years later, they soon learned that the beans they called "black almonds" were the source of the dark, bitter, frothy beverage which was served at every Aztec celebration. They did not care for it at first, but over time the Mexican women they took into their households taught them to enjoy it. Cortés took the secret of chocolate home to Spain. Initially, the Spanish did not care for the gritty, bitter drink which the Aztecs had typically flavored with crushed red or chili peppers. Other commodities arriving in Spain from the New World were sugar and vanilla. Both were soon mixed in to Spanish drinking chocolate, which was by then served hot, to help reduce the grit. Cinnamon was also often added to a cup of hot drinking chocolate. The secret of this now very popular drink was held within Spain for the next nine decades.
Knowledge of the exotic, delicious hot drink, chocolate, escaped Spain in 1615, when the king of France, Louis XIII, married Anne of Austria. The new French queen brought the secret of chocolate from her homeland to her new husband’s court, where it was immediately popular. Once the secret was out of Spain, it began to spread across the Continent, and then the Channel. The first chocolate shop known in England was opened about 1657, in Gracechurch Street, London, by an enterprising Frenchman. He not only sold chocolate ready to drink, but he sold a recipe book for various chocolate drinks and gave lessons on how to make this fashionable new beverage at home. It was at about this same time that England gained access to a rich source of cacao, when they took Jamaica from Spain, in 1655. English chocolate drinkers experimented with the ingredients of this luxurious drink and by the early 1670s, they were using milk instead of water in their recipes, as well as adding eggs and blending in a number of different flavorings.
The golden age of chocolate drinking was the eighteenth century. Over its course, chocolate in England evolved from a drink served primarily in fashionable men’s clubs to one taken most often at home, usually in the morning, and most commonly by aristocratic ladies. It was during this same century that chocolate manufacturers first established themselves in Britain. The making of chocolate was a very labor-intensive and complex process. First, the cocoa beans and pulp were removed from the pod, heaped up and left to ferment. The beans were then separated from the pulp and spread in the sun to dry. Once dried, the cocoa beans could be bagged for shipping. But they were nowhere near ready to make drinking chocolate. The cocoa beans, or, as the English of this time called them, cocoa nuts, next had to be roasted, the shells were then removed by winnowing, after which they were ground on a hot stone. By weight, cocoa beans are 50% fat, so this grinding process yielded a thick, rather gritty paste. This paste was molded into lozenges or tablets of between two to four ounces and left to dry. It was from these molded tablets that drinking chocolate could then be made.
When dried cocoa nuts were first imported into England, in the late seventeenth century, they were sold only in that form. Each buyer would have to roast, winnow, grind and mold their own chocolate tablets. But soon some enterprising men, a number of them of the Quaker persuasion, imported vast quantities of cocoa nuts, which they then processed in volume into chocolate tablets for retail sale. Though most people preferred to buy their chocolate in this "ready-made" form, there were still a few dedicated "chocolate connoisseurs" who purchased the dried raw cocoa nuts and processed them themselves. The large-scale chocolate manufactures soon began blending sugar and various flavorings into the chocolate paste before molding the tablets for drying, which significantly increased their appeal to chocolate customers. Some of the more popular flavorings included vanilla, ambergris, cinnamon, nutmeg, mace, aniseed, cloves, cardamon, bergamot, lemon peel, orange-flower water, and rose water. Despite the fact that these chocolate tablets were quite hard and gritty, there were some who did eat them as a kind of candy. However, most people believed this would cause severe indigestion and the chocolate tablets were purchased and used primarily in the making of drinking chocolate.
Chocolate lozenges or tablets were usually packaged in specially-made linen bags, then in tin or wooden boxes, to protect them from moisture, air and light. In such packaging they would keep for at least a year. Chocolate was considered a luxury commodity, and was therefore heavily taxed. Thus, the cost of chocolate tablets was only slightly reduced as the century progressed. Any cost reduction was primarily due to the steadily lowering cost of sugar and the efficiencies achieved in the manufacturing process by the use of water or steam power to run the grinding mills. Unfortunately for manufacturers, as a luxury commodity, chocolate was also prime target for thieves and chocolate shipments had to be transported under guard, or in secret. Unlike things like precious gems, even if chocolate was recovered from a thief, it was usually very difficult to determine from which manufacturer it had been taken. Therefore, manufacturers went to great lengths to protect their products.
By the Regency, the most popular chocolate flavorings appear to have been vanilla, cinnamon, nutmeg, orange-flower water and rose water. Even with the labor-saving purchase of chocolate tablets, there was still a great deal of effort required to convert the tablet into a cup of drinking chocolate. The necessary amount chocolate would be grated or shaved from the hard tablet into the milk, which would then be set to boil in a large pot, while it was constantly stirred. When the milk came to a boil, the pot would be removed from the heat and the mixture would be rigorously agitated by a special stirring implement known as a molinet. At this point, an egg or two might also be added, as well as either white flour or cornstarch, which would help to absorb the excess cocoa butter which would have been released by heating. These thickeners would also produce a smoother, less gritty beverage. After several minutes of arduous beating, the mixture would be returned to the heat and brought to a boil once more, still stirring constantly. When the chocolate mixture came to a boil the second time, cream may have been added, then it would have been poured into a special chocolate pot, where the molinet would be used once again, the shaft vigorously rolled between the palms, not only to fully blend the chocolate mixture, but to create the all-important frothy head, without which a cup of drinking chocolate would not be considered complete or even fit to be served.
By the end of the eighteenth century, and right through the Regency, drinking chocolate was most commonly taken by aristocratic ladies in the morning. Many would take it on rising, since it might be an hour or more before they would sit down to breakfast. Some ladies might have a slice or two of toast along with their cup of chocolate upon rising, but it was also common to stir bread, rather than flour or cornstarch, into the chocolate while it was being prepared, to thicken it and absorb the excess cocoa butter. If an egg and/or cream was also added, this thick hot drink would certainly sustain a lady through her morning duties until she took her place at the breakfast table. Those who did not take their chocolate immediately upon arising might have chosen to enjoy a cup of chocolate with their breakfast. It seems that chocolate taken with a meal was less likely to contain either eggs or cream, but was usually just a sweetened, flavored chocolate prepared with milk and thickener only. However, drinking chocolate in England was not only made with milk. It might have been made as the Spanish and French had done, with water, though by the Regency, chocolate made with water often included a liberal lacing of brandy. This version of drinking chocolate was most usually taken by men, often in a coffee house. There was a third way to prepare drinking chocolate in which the liquid was about half water and half wine, typically either a red port or a fine drinking sherry. It seems this version of the drink was most often enjoyed in the evening, perhaps by a couple sharing a comfortable coze before the fire, or as light sustenance after a night out on the town. There were, of course, a few ladies who felt the need of this wine-fortified chocolate when they rose in the morning, but this does not appear to have been widespread.
The high cost of the ready-made chocolate tablets and other necessary ingredients, plus the labor-intensive nature of the preparation of a cup of drinking chocolate meant that it was restricted to the more affluent and leisured classes. It took thirty minutes or more of strenuous effort to prepare a cup of drinking chocolate. Working people seldom had the price of the ingredients, the necessary equipment or the time to indulge in the costly luxury of drinking chocolate. However, as a special treat, they might occassionally order a dish of chocolate at the local coffee house. By the Regency, unlike a dish of coffee, for which they would be likely to pay less than a penny, a single dish of chocolate would run them three pennies or more.
The drinking chocolate which our Regency ancestors consumed was not only thicker than that which we drink today, due to the addition of flour or cornstarch, it was also much paler in color, for their drinking chocolate had not been "Dutched." In 1828, Dutch chocolate manufacturer, Conrad van Houten, patented his new invention, a screw press that made it possible to squeeze out more than two-thirds of the cocoa butter in the cocoa beans prior to grinding. The beans could then be ground into a powder, rather than a thick, fatty paste. This powder was much more easily dissolved in hot liquid and resulted in a thinner, but smoother, more flavorful chocolate drink. In addition to removing the bulk of the cocoa butter, van Houten also discovered that by processing the cocoa with the alkaline carbonate of potash, he achieved a cocoa with a milder flavor and a darker color. This alkalizing treatment quickly became known as "Dutching," since it had been invented by a Dutchman. This process would eventually lead to the development of bars of eating chocolate in the 1880s. However, all that happened long after the Regency was over.
The next time you tear open a packet of ready-to-mix cocoa powder, think about how much easier you have it than did your Regency ancestors. They could expect to devote at least a half hour of strenuous labor to the production of a cup of drinking chocolate. If you would like to taste a facsimile of the hot chocolate they usually drank, add your cocoa powder to hot milk, stir in a couple of tablespoons of butter, or cocoa butter, if you have it, then add a couple of tablespoons of white flour or cornstarch. At the same time you may also mix in a raw egg and maybe some vanilla, or cinnamon, nutmeg or even rose water. Stir constantly over heat until all the ingredients are blended, add some heavy cream, then beat vigorously with a whisk until you achieve a frothy head on your cup of chocolate. But having done all of that, would you actually drink it? As much as I love the Regency, I think I will stick with twenty-first-century hot chocolate.
Next week, I will describe the special implements and equipment which were developed for the making and serving of drinking chocolate since its discovery by the Spanish. Most of these implements were still in use during the Regency, though the majority of them are seldom seen today outside museums and antique shops.
There are many books and web sites devoted to the history of chocolate, so I will not post a bibliography here. However, for a sampling of the titles available, view the results of a search for "chocolate history" at Google Books. You should be able to find most of these books at your local library, or at the many online bookstores, if you are interested in learning more about the history of chocolate.