We are entering the cold weather where cuddling up by the fire with a steaming mug of something warm, such as hot chocolate, is an evening favorite. So here is a short history of this delicious beverage.
Between 3,000 and 4,000 years ago, cacao plants were first cultivated in Mesoamerica by the Olmec, living in southern Mexico. Rather than eating chocolate in solid form, however, the nibs from the cacao plant were ground into a paste and mixed with water to make a chocolate drink known as “xocolxtl.” In order to achieve its frothy consistency, the mixture was poured back and forth between two bowls or jugs. It was found to be an energy booster and mood enhancer, as well as providing long-lasting sustenance; these positive nutritional effects led the Olmec to believe the drink possessed mystic qualities, so it was generally reserved for important figures at sacred ceremonies.
The Olmec passed the chocolate drink on to the Maya civilization, which passed it on to perhaps the beverage’s most famous historical forefathers, the Aztecs. Legendary Aztec leader Montezuma II was known to demand cacao beans from conquered peoples and supposedly drank goblet after goblet of hot chocolate every day in a display of power and opulence. When Spanish Conquistador Hernan Cortes (1485-1547) and his soldiers encountered the Aztecs, one of his men wrote about Montezuma’s consumption of the curious cacao-made drink and how the Spanish themselves were also served the beverage “all frothed up.” Ultimately, Cortes conquered the Aztecs, and brought the popular drink to Spain, from which it spread throughout Europe, and eventually the whole world, primarily as an expensive drink only available to the wealthy elite.
Jesuits ran some cacao plantations in the New World, chocolate a popular beverage amongst monks and priests. According to the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology, many of “the first recipes using cacao beans came from a 12th century Cistercian monastery, Monasterio de Nuestra Señora de Piedra monasterio.” Extant documents indicate that by 1534 it is already a staple in the monastic kitchen. According to tradition, a Franciscan friar, Fray Jerónimo de Aguilar, who had traveled with Cortéz, gave a recipe and some beans to the Abbot of the Monastery. As depicted in the photo to the right, Cistercian communities, even to this day, often have a room located above the cloister, known as the chocolatería, used specifically for the preparation and enjoyment of chocolate. Interestingly, the popularity of drinking chocolate among Catholics led to sometimes fervent debate over whether it was a drink or a food, and thus whether it could, or could not, be consumed during times of fasting.
The French began drinking frothy, heated chocolate in the early 17th century, touting it as a remedy for many ailments. Not everyone loved the strange brew, however. French aristocrat Madame de Sevigne commented on its excessive popularity throughout the court at Versailles in a letter to her pregnant daughter during the year 1671, warning: “the Marquise de Coëtlogon drank so much when she was expecting that she gave birth to a little boy, black as the devil, who died.” Rather curious, but doubtfully caused by the chocolate! This example aside, hot chocolate was taken daily by Louis IV during his public morning ablutions, and Madame du Barry notably gave chocolate mixed with amber as an aphrodisiac to stimulate her lovers. Marie Antoinette likewise indulged, arriving on French soil with a personal chocolate maker in tow, and during the royal family’s Flight to Varennes in 1791, she refused to part with her silver chocolatière, which contained “one hundred items made of silver, crystal, porcelain, ivory, ebony and steel.”
Around 1657 a Frenchman opened a shop on Gracechurch Street in London where he sold chocolate, exotically advertised “as a West Indian drink [which] cures and preserves the body of many diseases.” In England, coffee houses were rivaled only by chocolate houses, tea having yet to fully hit the scene. Each establishment was typically associated with one of the Parliamentary parties, and often turned into full-on gentlemen’s clubs. For example, the Cocoa-tree Chocolate House, located on St. James Street in London, was patronized by the Tory party, and then became the Cocoa Tree Club. Mrs. White’s Chocolate House, another Tory establishment, was created on Chesterfield St. in 1693. It was famous not only for its chocolate but as a notorious center of gambling. This particular chocolate house moved to St. James Street in 1778, and transformed into an official, and highly elite, gentlemen’s club simply called White’s.
Adhering to a common 18th century recipe circulated among the wealthy, vanilla and sugar were mixed with cocoa paste to create a sweet, drinkable chocolate similar to today’s darkest chocolate, if a little more bitter. It wasn’t until 1727 that milk was added, creating the creamy confection we know as milk chocolate.
Variation in chocolate recipes were almost endless, but many were imbibed for their powers of remedying illness or seducing would-be lovers. Marie Antoinette created many recipes, one including, “chocolate mixed with orchid bulb for strength, chocolate with orange blossom to calm the nerves, or chocolate with sweet almond milk to aid the digestion.” French court ladies, concerned with remaining svelte, ordered, “4 oz. of chocolate, 6 oz. sugar, eggs beaten well and a good half-litre of Madeira! Consume at breakfast and don’t eat until dinner. . . ” The Temptation of Chocolate
In 1631, Doctor Antonio Colmenero de Ledesma published A Curious Treatise of the Nature and Quality of Chocolate, and in this book not only extolled the many health benefits of chocolate, but also gave the world the first written chocolate recipe.
“Take one hundred cocoa beans, two chillies, a handful of anise seed and two of vanilla (two pulverized Alexandria roses can be substituted), two drams of cinnamon, one dozen almonds and the same amount of hazelnuts, half a pound of white sugar and enough annatto to give some color. And there you have the king of chocolates.”
Among the weirdest recipes recorded: the Marquis de Sade’s “chocolate cantharnidine” – a toxic, aphrodisiacal blend derived from beetles mixed with cacao. Yuck! Needless to say, formal complaints soon followed at court and the debauched Sade received a royal scolding. Okay!