The Chocolate Cult: Chocolate in 17th and 18th Century England

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Chocolate in 17th and 18th Century England

Today, Sisters and Brothers, I want to share an email interview I did with Dr. Kate Loveman from the University of Leicester about her recently published article "The Introduction of Chocolate into England: Retailers, Researchers, and Consumers, 1640–1730." You may not be able to find the article yourself, I recommend checking university libraries near you often even if you are not a student or member of the faculty you can explore their collections, but she was willing to give us some basic insights.

Now you may read the article yourself by going through Dr. Loveman's university page and looking down a bit.
Dr. Kate Loveman
Dr. Loveman, what is your field of study and your degree in?

My field of study is English literature and history between 1600 and 1750. My PhD was in English with strong elements of social and political history.

Where do you currently teach/research?

I’m a lecturer in the School of English at the University of Leicester, UK.

How did you get interested in the question of chocolate in England?

My research into chocolate developed from a book I’m writing about the Restoration diarist Samuel Pepys. 

I went to look at the manuscript journal of Pepys’s patron, a man called Edward Mountagu who later became the first Earl of Sandwich. In the journal there is a long section on chocolate written in 1668 and 1669 which struck me as curious. I’ve previously done work on coffee-houses in seventeenth-century England, so I started researching to find out how unusual this manuscript on chocolate actually was.

What types of evidence did you draw from?

My main source was Sandwich’s journal and information it contained from his contact in Spain, John Werden. In order to put this information in context, I looked at a range of other sources from the period 1640 to 1730 including early print advertising, recipe books, plays, periodicals, and Customs records.
Dr. Loveman tries the freezing process

I also looked into early scientific and culinary work on freezing, since Sandwich and Werden both wrote about making frozen chocolate treats. Basically, the manuscript explains that you put a vessel of chocolate drink (made with chocolate, water, and sugar) into a mixture of snow and salt, and then stir the chocolate to make it ‘all ice’. It turns out that this freezing method was not at all well known in England in the 1660s and it required considerable investment and expertise to do it in summertime.

What was the greatest challenge posed by the evidence?  Did you use a particular theory or approach to overcome this challenge?

In the mid-seventeenth century, English men and women were still deciding on the merits of chocolate and how it should be consumed. The main challenge I faced was that the discussions of chocolate in this period touched on such a wide range of topics that it required researching in a range of fields -- trade, science, and medicine among them. I had the benefit of being able to draw on existing research in these areas, but it was also often a case of finding new seventeenth-century sources to help make sense of the others.

What were the common facts about the introduction of chocolate into England that your research confirmed?

Earlier research had pointed to the 1650s as a key time in marketing chocolate in London. This was when the first coffee-houses opened where chocolate was sold along with other exotic drinks such as coffee and tea. I was able to add some detail to this picture, and also to explore the development of elite ‘chocolate houses’ in the 1690s.

In brief, what new information did you uncover and what new understanding were you able to draw from this evidence?

I identified social and commercial factors which allowed chocolate to move from being an exotic, risky import to an established part of English culture.  People adapted this foreign product in some ingenious ways.  By the early 1660s, it was noted that the English had a taste for ‘milk chocolate’ – meaning the chocolate drink was often made up with milk, rather than using only water which was the method reportedly common in Spain and elsewhere.  

I also found some of the earliest, and certainly the most detailed, English recipes for frozen foods. The recipes for frozen chocolate in the Earl of Sandwich’s journal are almost exactly contemporary with the first known English recipe for ‘icy cream’, and 50 years before the first known printed recipes for ices in English cookbooks.  

Historians have wondered why chocolate was not as successful as coffee or tea in England – tea in particular became a major trading commodity and was practically the national drink by the end of the eighteenth century. My research suggests that chocolate did not become as widely consumed as tea or coffee because it was more expensive and harder to prepare – but it did benefit from eighteenth-century government policies to support chocolate manufacture in Great Britain.

How have your new interpretations and conclusions been received in your field and perhaps the mass media?

The article on my chocolate research is only just out, but my presentations at conferences have gone down well (though I do wonder if people were turning up expecting free chocolate samples). 

The media reporting tended to focus on the method for freezing chocolate in Sandwich’s diary. This was partly because one of the first Earl’s descendants allegedly invented the sandwich – making it two food “firsts” for that family.

Some of the reporting did get rather garbled: for the record, I don’t recommend putting the salt directly into the chocolate instead of into the ice, unless you’re a fan of slightly chilled, salty chocolate gunk!

Will you continue to investigate the promotion of and use of chocolate in England or other parts of Europe in the future?

I’m not planning any further academic research into chocolate – just personal research from now on. 

Finally is there one or two facts you'd like our readers to know about chocolate's earliest years in England?

There’s a pithy quotation that captures the difference in attitudes towards chocolate then and now: one advertiser in 1652 boasted that frequent chocolate consumption made people ‘Fat and Corpulent, faire and Amiable’. 

These were all admirable and attractive qualities as far as many seventeenth-century readers were concerned, but it’s not a boast you’ll hear from advertisers today.  

The same writer also claimed that chocolate protects against ‘all infectious Diseases’.  Readers might want to test that claim next time they feel a cold coming on.

Wasn't that interesting, Sisters and Brothers?  Please do leave a comment believe or a question and perhaps Dr. Loveman will reply.

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