Thursday, April 15, 2010

Tasting (Chocolate) History

Thursday, April 15, 2010
Susan reports:

It's not often that historical research involves eating chocolate, but we intrepid Nerdy History Girls will try almost anything in pursuit of the past. Which is why one of our favorite things about Colonial Williamsburg is the the 18th c. chocolate.

Chocolate became increasingly popular in 18th c. Europe. Served primarily mixed with milk or cream as a morning beverage (the way it is being enjoyed by this French family, left) or in coffee and chocolate houses, 18th c. style chocolate is a very different animal from modern sweetened chocolate. It's a more complicated flavor, full of spices: not exactly sweet, but not bitter, with undertones of anise, red pepper, nutmeg, and cinnamon.

In other words, it wasn't a kiddie drink with sugar and marshmallows, but a sophisticated "adult beverage", and an expensive, status-conscious one, too, since all cocoa beans were imported. Chocolate was also praised for its quasi-medical benefits. According to Dr. Quincy's Medical Lexicon in 1782, chocolate was "good likewise not only in all intentions as a nourisher, and a restorative, but as an emollient, by lubricating and relaxing the passages."

In one of those rare, glorious unions between history and commerce, Colonial Williamsburg has recently rebuilt Charlton's Coffeehouse on its original site through the support of Forrest and Deborah Mars of the Mars Corporation (you know, M&Ms, Snickers, Dove Bars, and other necessities of the writing life.) Mr. and Mrs. Mars have also sponsored academic studies of the history of chocolate, as well as a line of historic chocolate products that's for sale throughout the historic district.

The CW chocolate comes in slender, historically accurate cylinders that are dusted with cocoa, and sold in small, cloth, drawstring bags. And as Loretta and I discovered, it's quite addictive, and we both have lots of the little cloth bags to prove it, too. If you'd rather drink your chocolate (and yes, we did that as well), the last stop of the tour of Charlton's Coffeehouse is the kitchen. There visitors are offered a choice of 18th c. style coffee or chocolate – which, from the number of half-full little cups discarded in the trash barrel by the door, may be a little too unusual for the tastes of most modern visitors.

But not for us. We now understand entirely why 18th c. ladies couldn't begin their day properly without the ritual of the chocolate mill and pot (like the one, right), or why so many gentlemen adored their chocolate houses, and the chance to sip away the hours. Who wouldn't?

In addition to eating historical chocolate, we read about it, too, and American Heritage Chocolate has a new book.  I have to admit I haven't read it (yet) but it's on my wish list, and I promise to dust the cocoa from my fingers when I turn the pages. And, as a freebie, here's a video about how 18th c. chocolate was made.

Above left: Le Dejeuner by Francois Boucher, 1739, the Louvre

15 comments:

Rowenna said...

I've always wanted to learn how the eighteenth-century drink was made--will have to check out the video and do some more research :) Perhaps in the kitchen.

Joanna Waugh said...

Great article, Susan! I especially liked the Colonial Williamsburg video. Thanks for sharing the information!
~Jo~

Victoria said...

Oh that sounds so wonderful!

LaDonna said...

Sounds delish! I may have to order up some of this to try. I could so get into research like this.

Katy Cooper said...

And yet another reason to visit CW... I feel a road trip coming on...

Pauline said...

I wonder if one of the closest modern experiences to the 18th century chocolate drink is Mexican hot chocolate. The blend always includes cinnamon and usually a dash of local peppers. It's one of the things I miss about living in L.A.

Susan Holloway Scott said...

Aha, glad I pleased all the chocoholics!

Pauline, that's an excellent notion. Considering how chocolate was first imported by the Spanish and made its way throughout the rest of Europe by way of Spain, I'd guess that Mexican hot chocolate probably is a close cousin to the 18th c. variety.

Years ago, when I first began to bake and was perfecting a brownie recipie, I began putting ground black pepper in with the chocolate. i wish I could remember who told me to do that, so I could give her/him credit -- but now I realize I was being 18th c. without realizing. You can't really taste the pepper - just a little indefinable kick. :)

Anonymous said...

When Cocoa came to the Old World in liquid form, the Spanish, mimicking American Natives would froth it. Originally this was done by blowing on a spout on the cocoa pot but the Spanish introduced a do-hicky (I forget the name since I haven't had to help in a chocolate tasting in months but it looks like a stick with a gear on the end.)

Hershey's does something similar in their (relatively new) chocolate tasting (I used to work at their welcome center.) The kitchens always mixed it up for us but we used the mayan spiced blend cocoa mix (add cinnamon to regular cocoa will do just fine) with a milk, and I want to say we add a tiny, tiny bit pepper.
Be warned that it is messy to clean up if you spill it...

Shawn said...

In Venice everyone drinks a kind of hot chocolate drink that may be similar to this. It's very thick, not sweet, made with steamed, frothed milk or cream, and flavored with vanilla and I think cinnamon. Served in little cups like demitasse, it's very rich, very good.

Shawn said...

More about Venetian chocolate. This is the best chocolate shop in the city.
http://www.viziovirtu.com/en/index.htm
They made a big deal about Casanova believing hot chocolate was an aphrodisiac!

Jane O said...

Okay, I am dying to know. How could I make hot chocolate for breakfast that approximates what was drunk in the 18th century? Without having to travel to Colonial Williamsburg, please.

Carrie C said...

Let's hope unsweetened chocolate enjoys some increased support in the US! In Spain "churros y chocolate" are also served unsweetened, with packets of sugar on the side. (For that matter, ordering a hot chocolate will also get you the same deal - a thick cup of unsweetened chocolate sludgy yumminess.)

cara elliott said...

Great post, Susan!

I became fascinated with chocolate history a few years ago, and am working on a Regency-set historical mystery series that features a hero and heroine who are, among other things, chocolate experts. I've found lots of fun facts and lore that will be woven into the story . . .the spice combinations are quite interesting, to say the least!

QNPoohBear said...

While the coffee house was still an excavation site when I was last in Williamsburg, I bought a block of Heritage Chocolate and it's not bad. The cocoa recipe tastes like regular stove-top made cocoa. It's not like the instant powdered kind but still really good. The chocolate creams are also delicious!

Catherine Boulay said...

I have the same chocolate pot in the photo on your blog. Can you tell me anything about it's age or origin. It's so wonderful.

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