Chocolate took off as a popular and luxury drink in 17th century Europe. It has all the trappings of an expensive commodity, using expensive imported ingredients and difficult to make. It was first encountered by Europeans in the early 16th century with Christopher Columbus encountering the beans on his fourth mission to the Americas. Later the conquistador, Hernán Cortés possibly encountered it as a drink when he visited the court of Montezuma, in modern day Mexico. The European craze for chocolate began 100 years after this, in the early 1600s.
The first chocolate house in London, was in 1657. Making chocolate was a specialised job and not something readily done at home. Usually one would go to a chocolate house to enjoy the drink and socialize. Although the first chocolate house was in Bishopsgate, most of the coffee houses centred around St James’s in Westminster. The City coffee houses did sell chocolate as well as coffee, but the quality was not as good, it being a difficult drink to make and there wasn’t much demand for chocolate in a coffee house. Coffee houses were the places to go for business and caffeine induced coffee was the drink associated with being sharp witted to making profitable deals.
Whilst coffee was a drink for business, chocolate was a drink for leisure. It was expensive, aspirational and a real luxury; only drunk by those who could afford it. It was also seen as nourishment. Robert Hooke, 17th century scientist, architect and City of London Fire Judge, kept a record of his diet and medicines, and would make a note of when he drank coffee.
“To Sir Chr. Wrens. Walked with him. Choclatt at Mans.” Friday 25th February 1676.
Mans was a coffee house on Lincolns Inn Gate in Chancery Lane.
Making chocolate was a lengthy process requiring specialist skills. First of all, the cocoa beans would need to be roasted, and the nut taken out of the shell. These nuts would then be ground to a paste. The cocoa nut contains oil which when ground, made this paste-like substance. The more it was ground, the better the quality of the chocolate. The paste was made into a ‘cake’, which was a block of cocoa that was easy to store, transport and would mature with age.
In the 17th century the chocolate drink was the main consumable from the paste. When required, the cake would be broken up and mixed with water. It was a case of dissolving the cocoa, not straining it and discarding the leaves or grounds as with coffee or tea. Due to the oil, the cocoa didn’t easily dissolve, so to make the drink it had to be boiled and constantly whisked. Otherwise there would be lumps of ‘fatty’ cocoa within the drink.
Pure chocolate, has a very bitter taste, and was not to the liking of 17th century Europe. A lot of sugar was used to sweeten the drink. Other flavourings were also used including vanilla, cinnamon, aniseed, pepper and famously chilli. Milk, eggs or wine could also be added.
Going back to Robert Hooke, he did make chocolate at home, but not always with success:
“Grace Made chocolate but heat it too hot without water.” Friday 11th February 1676.
Grace was Hooke’s housekeeper and niece. William III was a lover of chocolate. He brought his taste for it from Holland when he ascended the throne with Mary during the Glorious Revolution in 1689. In such elite households, it was a popular breakfast drink, But William III drank it throughout the day. He employed is own chocolatier, by the name of Solomon de le Faya.
All the ingredients for chocolate were imported from around the world and thus expensive. The main ingredients, the cacao and the sugar, came from plantations in the Caribbean and South America. Like many of the aspirational consumables of the time, the production was under-pinned by the slave trade and enslaved people working on the plantations.
In the early 19th century, 1828, a process of removing the cacao oils and grounding the nib to make powder was introduced. This powder was mass produced, and so chocolate became an affordable everyday drink. Interestingly, although chocolate became affordable and is so today, it is still seen as luxurious and something you have on special occasions. There are high-end and low-end chocolate products, but when it comes to marketing, the angle is always quality and luxury.
Have a go…
The 21st century hot chocolate we drink today is very different to chocolate of the 17th century. Those who were lucky enough to drink within the chocolate shops found in St James’s would not recognise our hot chocolate. If you want to have a go at making something similar to the 17th century style, first choose your raw material.
Cocoa or nibs
Without buying the raw cacao beans and roasting them, it is best to source some cocoa or nibs, as close to 100% as you can. We recommend a fairtrade and organic variety. Cocoa powder is straight forward as it is already ground and you simply add it to hot water, boil and stir. If you choose nibs, then you will have to grind them using a pestle and mortar. Nibs are the broken, roasted cocoa beans and they won’t simply dissolve in boiling water. They grind into a dry paste. Make sure all the nibs are ground into this state, otherwise they will not dissolve.
Making the Chocolate
You will need 2 tablespoons of cocoa with half a cup of water. Add the heated water to the cocoa in a small pan, adding the water a little at a time. Keep it over the heat, adding the water and mixing it. Obviously Cocoa powder will dissolve quicker. As it heats through the mixture will become thicker. Add the sugar and your chosen flavourings as you see fit. Have fun and experiment.
Serve the chocolate in a small bowl, with no handles. This is how it was drunk. If you wish to experience it in greater depth, then wear a frock coat, full length waist coat, stockings, and full bottomed peri-wig, or a fontange, silk gown and stomachers, pinned on to a pair of stays.
If you want to create a chocolate true to the original, then there are plenty of food historians who have researched original recipes and experimented. They offer guidance and recipes. For example, A Taste of History delves into a variety of chocolate drinks, including chocolate wine: https://atasteofhistory.net/chocolate-recipes
Let us know
Clayton, Anton, 2003, London’s Coffee Houses. London: Historical Publications.
Robinson, H and Adams, W., 1935, The Diary of Robert Hook. London: Taylor and Francis.