Tuesday, April 23, 2024

17th-century English guide to chocolate published for first time

Take some gulps of cold water before each drink and — with this precaution — three or four cups of hot chocolate a day will do you no harm at all. Bear in mind that it is considered “most wholesome” to eat biscuits dunked in the beverage first.  

Today’s dentists might disagree, but these persuasive lessons come from a 17th-century English manuscript on chocolate that has now been published for the first time. Written while the English were playing catch-up with southern Europeans in embracing the confection, it includes a recipe prized by Charles II, notes on Spanish chocolate-drinking habits and a guide to making chocolate from cacao.  

Commander, diplomat and chocolate connoisseur Edward Montagu, 1st Earl of Sandwich, in a portrait after Sir Peter Lely at the National Trust’s Plas Newydd. Image: public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The extraordinary 31-page dossier of Edward Montagu, 1st Earl of Sandwich, was uncovered by Dr Kate Loveman, of the University of Leicester, among the peer’s papers. She said: “It’s a record of chocolate-making of a detail not available in other English-language manuscripts or printed texts of the time. It includes a recipe bought by the king and illustrating the very highest-level privileged consumption. But it also tells us what other consumers were doing and the values they attached to chocolate. It is about hospitality, medicine and the history of trade — and has a place in the history of colonialism and empire too.”  

Sandwich, who was a naval commander under Oliver Cromwell before backing the restoration of the Stuart dynasty, developed a taste for chocolate while on diplomatic service in Spain and Portugal in the 1660s. He was so enamoured of the drink — and perhaps by its commercial potential — that he commissioned a contact in Madrid to study the Spanish chocolate industry and consumption. 

In the resulting report, John Werden, the English representative in Spain, described the manufacture of a batch of chocolate ordered in February 1669. With an outsider’s eye, he went into meticulous detail, even providing drawings of chocolate-making tools and cacao-grinders at work. Among the various stages, he described these workers — commonly from La Mancha or Asturias — grinding the cacao “with all the strength of a man” until it becomes “softe like butter (or melted oyntment)”.  

What was all this effort for? At this time, Loveman said, “chocolate” always meant a drink or the solid combination of roasted cacao beans, sugar and spices from which a drink was made. Cacao beans and solid chocolate had been imported to Europe from the Americas since the 16th century. By the 1600s, chocolate was established both commercially and socially in Spain, helped along by aristocrats, clerics and merchants who had spent time as colonists.  

As a New World product once savoured by Aztec royalty, chocolate had exotic connotations that appealed to European elites. Werden told Sandwich that chocolate was prepared with special care in Madrid lest “it lose the taste it hath of the Indyes”. He added that chocolate of the Indies — made from only one variety of cacao, such as that of Caracas — was “better esteemed” for flavour than milder chocolate made in Spain from a mix of cacao types.  

A 17th-century European illustration of chocolate-making in the New World, from publisher John Ogilby’s 1671 book ‘America’. Image: public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

As Loveman explains in her paper in Food & History: “This Englishman, writing for his countrymen seeking to follow elite Spanish fashions, knew that among those fashions was the habit of professing to value the tastes of the Indies and praising the chocolate manufactured in the Americas above the home-made product.” 

If that calls to mind the attitude of today’s foodies, there are other similarities. Loveman notes that flavourings such as chilli and vanilla used at the time were “much more like the things we put into expensive chocolate today than would have been the case 50 years ago, in England at least.” 

Werden’s intelligence was particularly valuable to Sandwich at a time when there was no accessible English printed guide to chocolate-manufacturing and even advice on preparing the drink was hard to come by. 

Charles II’s recipe — pasted into Sandwich’s diary with Werden’s report — was further precious information, presumably shared as a mark of royal favour. It called for lavish ingredients including ambergris, musk and civet in addition to cinnamon, aniseed, beaten Guinea pepper, beaten cardamom seeds and oil of Jamaican pepper.  

The background of this recipe illustrates the premium on chocolate knowledge in Restoration high society. Sandwich noted in his diary that the king had paid £200 for it. While Loveman said this sum appeared “startling”, research by Polly Putnam, a curator at Historic Royal Palaces, has confirmed that, in February 1669, £227 10 shillings was paid from the king’s privy purse for a “Receipt of Chocalette”. The wording indicates that the payment was for the knowledge rather than the ingredients. Sadly, the recipient of the money isn’t named.

Servants are shown making hot chocolate in this artwork on tiles from early 18th-century Spain. Photo: Alamy

The recipe created cakes of especially flavourful chocolate to be added sparingly to a conventional hot chocolate preparation. Loveman said: “It’s a ‘leaven’, so it seems to have been something that you added to chocolate to make it even more glorious than it would have been.” 

While the Spanish generally made their hot chocolate with water, Loveman said the English were experimenting with creamier versions. “Hot chocolate was usually made by putting chocolate solid into boiling water with sugar, and whipping it up to create a froth. There are also indications that the English were developing a taste for putting milk or egg yolks into their hot chocolate. This was partly to make it more substantial and take the edge off what might have been quite bitter chocolate. The other reason was to make it cheaper by reducing the amount of expensive ingredients needed for flavour.”  

She said that, in England at this time, only the richest men and women could enjoy chocolate at home or provide it to guests in line with the elite Spanish fashion. “However, men of the urban mercantile or middling classes could go into spaces like coffee houses and chocolate houses and buy a cup of hot chocolate for a couple more pence than a cup of coffee.”  

Besides being seen as exotic and evocative of refined Spanish hospitality, chocolate was marketed as something of a 17th-century superfood. The preface to a 1652 English translation of the Spanish physician Antonio de Colmenero’s treatise on chocolate recommended it for numerous conditions. The translator James Wadsworth claimed that it was not only an aphrodisiac but also caused “conception in women”, cured consumption, aided digestion and nourished beautifully. 

In a period when the female beauty standard was curvaceous, Wadsworth said it would make “such as drink it often, Fat, and Corpulent, faire and Amiable”.

It was also considered an effective pick-me-up. Samuel Pepys, whose patron was Lord Sandwich, took chocolate as a hangover cure the morning after Charles II’s coronation in 1661.  

A late 17th or early 18th-century depiction of fashionable chocolate-drinking by Dutch artist Jacob Gole. Image: public domain, via Rijksmuseum Amsterdam

Although chocolate was normally served hot, Werden’s report also contains the earliest workable recipe in English for a chocolate ice. The Spanish recipe involved standing a vessel containing cooled hot chocolate inside another one in which snow was stirred together with salt — causing the chocolate in the inner vessel to freeze. 

Werden cautioned: “This way is much used for pleasure in the heate of summer; but is held unwholesome & one is oblidged for better security to Drinke Hott chocolatti in 1/4 of an houre after.” 

In her paper, which includes the full text of Sandwich’s manuscript alongside detailed analysis, Loveman argues that Sandwich wasn’t only inspired by fashion and his own tastebuds. She believes he was interested in promoting an English chocolate industry using cacao grown in Jamaica by enslaved people. Sandwich’s diplomatic coups had included gaining Spanish acceptance of English rule of the Caribbean island that had been captured in 1655 along with cacao plantations. 

According to Loveman, the style and detail of Werden’s report hint that it may have been intended not only for Sandwich’s eyes but also for those of his colleagues in the Royal Society who might have proved influential in promoting a new industry. However, there is no evidence that it was ever circulated and she speculates that Sandwich may have been restrained by the social cachet of keeping the knowledge exclusive, or by the prospect of gain by establishing his own manufactory.

The 1st Earl of Sandwich drowned during the Battle of Solebay in 1672 as depicted by Petrus Schotel. Photo: public domain, via Rijksmuseum Amsterdam

That wasn’t to be. Sandwich was killed fighting in the Third Anglo-Dutch War in May 1672, a few years after compiling his dossier. Hot chocolate remained fashionable but did not become an 18th-century staple like tea or coffee, which were cheaper and easier to prepare. It was only in the 19th century that drinking chocolate was mass-produced and solid eating chocolate developed.  

Nevertheless, now, over 300 years after his death in 1716, Werden’s report is getting the broader audience he may have hoped for. And modern readers can heed or ignore Lord Sandwich’s advice. “The Dreggs at the bottome of the Cuppe must not be Druncke for They doe much encrease melancholy.”  

The top image is a still life with a cup of chocolate by Spanish painter Juan de Zurbarán, circa 1640, on display in the Museum of Fine Arts and Archaeology, Besançon. Photo: Alamy

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