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The history of drinking chocolate: before the bar

mug of drinking chocolate

For most of its history, chocolate has been drunk rather than eaten. Chocolate bars, the most common way of consuming chocolate, were only invented in the late 19th century, whereas drinking chocolate has existed for around 4000 years! But what is the history of drinking chocolate? How has it changed over the years, from an Aztec ritual drink to a bedtime beverage? Come with us for a romp through the fascinating story of drinking chocolate through the centuries.

‘…poure in as many halfe pints of the said Water as there be ounces of Chocolate, and if you please, you may put in one or two yelks of fresh Eggs, which must be beaten untill they froth very much; the hotter it is drunke, the better it is.’

Antonio Colmenero de Ledesma, from Chocolate: or, An Indian Drinke, translated by James Wadsworth, 1652.

Although the method and ingredients may be slightly different, this could only be a recipe for hot chocolate! On average, Brits drink more than 3,000 mugs of hot cocoa over a lifetime.

When we tuck into a steaming cup of hot chocolate, we’re tapping into a long tradition of chocolate consumption. Chocolate bars are a relatively new invention, but people have been drinking cocoa for millennia!

Drink of the Gods: The Pre-Columbian History of Drinking Chocolate

The history of drinking chocolate starts early, and it starts in Mesoamerica. We know that by around 1800 BC, the Olmec (an early civilisation in central America) had turned cacao into drinking chocolate. Archaeological evidence suggests that this chocolate had ceremonial uses, including being ritually given to sacrificial victims.

However, it was the Mayans who really got into drinking chocolate, roasting and grinding cacao seeds before adding water, chillies and cornmeal. Pouring it between two cups created a pleasing froth on top, but this is still a little way from what we know and love today. 

history of drinking chocolate: Aztec woman frothing chocolate
European-style illustration of an Aztec woman pouring chocolate from one vessel to another to create a froth (Codex Tudela)

In ancient and medieval Mesoamerican societies, drinking chocolate played an important role in religious life. Mayan temples show images of gods being reborn as cacao trees, and the Aztecs believed that cacao had been given to humanity by the feathered serpent god Quetzalcoatl. Drinking chocolate was reserved for the nobility in the Aztec Empire, and played an essential role in social, cultural, and economic life.

Find out more about chocolate’s role in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica in our article on the subject here!

The European History of Drinking Chocolate

Come the early modern period, the history of drinking chocolate took a global turn. Chocolate came into Europe from the New World in the mid 1500s on the ships of Spanish conquistadors and friars. The first record of chocolate in Europe is its arrival in Spain is in 1544, when some Mayans came over to Spain with Catholic missionaries, and gave chocolate to Prince Philip as a gift. However, it’s likely that chocolate arrived before then, as there was constant trade between Spain and its colonies.

When it arrived in Spain, chocolate and religion once again proved a match made in heaven. Catholic monks soon got a taste for chocolate, drinking it before religious services. There are also records of visitors to Spanish convents being given chocolate by the nuns!

Over the next century, chocolate spread around Europe. It became particularly popular in Italy and France, where it was a favourite drink of the nobility. The French royal family helped cement chocolate-drinking culture in France. In 1659 King Louis XIV granted a royal patent to a chocolatier named David Chaliou, allowing him to manufacture drinking chocolate with the king’s stamp on it.

Drinking Chocolate at the French Court

The history of drinking chocolate would be far less interesting if the French royal family hadn’t loved it so much! In 1660, the French king married Maria Theresa of Austria (who was, confusingly, a Spanish princess). Maria Theresa brought her new husband chocolate as a wedding gift! The new French queen loved chocolate so much that in 1676 she appointed a man named Jean de Herrera as her own personal chocolatier.

Louis XIV’s reign was so long that he was succeeded by his great grandson, also named Louis. Louis XV had inherited his great-grandmother’s love of chocolate. He had his own make-at-home recipe, which he would whip up in his personal apartment at the Palace of Versailles. To try Louis XV’s recipe yourself, heat equal parts chocolate and water in a cafetiere, and whisk in an egg yolk just before serving for a silken sheen! 

In 1774, Louis XV was succeeded to the French throne by his son Louis XVI, the last king of France. Times were getting harder in France. In 1778 Voltaire, the novelist who chronicled the French revolution, noted that the rising price of imported chocolate was contributing to poverty in France. 

As the poor starved, Louis XVI and his queen Marie Antoinette were indulging in chocolate. Marie Antoinette had arrived at the French court in 1770 with her own personal chocolatier. His job was to combine the queen’s beloved chocolate with fashionable ingredients such as orange blossom and sweet almonds. The envy of such delights might drive anyone to revolution!

The History of Drinking Chocolate in England 

Britain entered the tale of the history of drinking chocolate in the 17th century, and came to play a major role. Chocolate arrived in England in the mid 1600s and made a big hit in London, where chocolate houses sprung up on many street corners. Chocolate and coffee houses charged entry fees, and chocolate became part of the metropolitan milieu. Well-to-do gentleman would talk over the matters of the day while drinking cups of rich spiced hot chocolate.

Coffee and chocolate houses were, however, a far cry from modern cafes. The gentlemen who frequented them were not always well behaved. As unregulated public social spaces, these establishments quickly became known for anarchy and licentiousness. Chocolate houses were a hotbed of gambling and other loose, immoral behaviours. Cartoons and satires from the 17th and 18th centuries often associated them with prostitution. 

history of drinking chocolate: 'the rake's midnight revels', depicting gambling and prostitution in a coffeehouse

Chocolate and coffee houses were also breeding grounds for sedition. These were places where people gathered to talk politics, and to share illicit ideas. One famous chocolate house, Cocoa Tree Coffee House, even had an underground tunnel to take plotters and traitors safely out of the premises

Alarmed at the unrest fomenting in coffee shops, Charles II put out an edict in 1675 banning public houses from selling coffee, tea, or chocolate. The new law encountered massive popular resistance and, to chocolate-drinkers’ delight, was rescinded after only a few weeks. Perhaps the law’s case was weakened by the fact that Ozdina’s chocolate house on St James’s Street was a favourite haunt of the King and his mistresses!

History of drinking chocolate: gossip in the chocolate house

How to Do Drinking Chocolate – 1600s Style 

1652 saw the publication of Captain James Wadsworth’s translation of ‘Chocolate, Or, an Indian Drinke’, a 1631 treatise on chocolate by the Spaniard Antonio Colmenero. This is one of the earliest hot chocolate recipes in the history of drinking chocolate. Colmenero’s book is a fun and somewhat bossy romp through everything you could want to know about drinking chocolate. Here are the author’s top tips on how to drink chocolate correctly:

  1. Be moderate – ‘you must onely take five or six ounces, in the morning, if it be in winter’. 
  2. Drink it before a long journey – ‘if you drinke a good draught of this in a morning, you may travell all the day without any other thing, this is so Subtantiall and Cordiall’.  
  3. Drink it hot or cold, with or without the skum, but the skum (cocoa fat) when separated from the cocoa ‘causeth Melancholy’, so beware! 

In spite of this ominous warning, Colmonero’s main view was of drinking chocolate as a panacea, a medical marvel. According to his treatise, chocolate could be used to treat all ills, from digestion to consumption, conception to delivery, jaundice and plague of the guts to lung problems and the green sickness (anaemia). His idea of chocolate and medicine played a vital role in the history of drinking chocolate, as chocolate was historically mainly used medicinally.

Colmenero’s book is full of various drinking chocolate recipes, with ingredients such as red pepper, cinnamon, aniseed, hazelnut, almonds, orange-water, cloves, logwood husks, star anise, corn, and egg yolks. 

If you’re feeling brave, experiment with the flavours above – let us know your favourite combinations. Alternatively, head over to our simple hot chocolate recipe certain to please all the family. 

The Origins of Milk Chocolate

Nowadays, when we think of milk chocolate, we think of a bar. But the story of milk chocolate is deeply enmeshed with the history of drinking chocolate. The first commercial solid milk chocolate wasn’t invented until 1875, when a Swiss chocolatier named Daniel Peter teamed up with his neighbour, Henri Nestlé, a powdered milk pioneer. They invented milk chocolate by mixing cocoa solids with milk powder – but ‘milk chocolate’ was already being sold commercially!

In 1849, Cadbury started selling ‘milk chocolate’. This was a hot chocolate mix, including cocoa powder and milk. While this hot milk chocolate was popular, it was not an original invention. Cadbury’s product was based on a much older recipe, by a man named Hans Sloane.

Hans Sloane was a 17th-century explorer, who visited Jamaica. While he was there, he collected a recipe for making hot chocolate, which he brought back to England. In 1687, he published the recipe, and it became an instant hit! Everyone was drinking Sloane’s ‘milk chocolate’. His recipe involved mixing chocolate with boiling milk and cinnamon. Sloane began to sell his chocolate and made a commercial success of it. The company he founded, Sloane’s, still sells hot chocolate today!

The Origins of Milk Chocolate II: A Prickly Problem 

Drinking chocolate presented a dilemma for fashion-conscious gents of the time: it was simply not compatible with beards! Cocoa is very fatty, and the fat in it (called cocoa butter) is insoluble; it does not dissolve in water (or milk). This floating fat had a nasty habit of settling in the long coiffed beards of fashionable gentleman as they enjoyed their cups of chocolate.

Unfortunately for that first generation of cocoa drinkers, a solution wasn’t found until the 19th century! Yet in 1828, a momentous event in the history of drinking chocolate occurred. A Dutch inventor named Coenraad van Houten created the cocoa press, a machine for squeezing the fat out of cocoa beans. This allowed for the separation of cocoa solids and cocoa butter. With the cocoa butter removed, the cocoa solids combined far better with milk or water. This resulted in a drink which was much less greasy and more pleasant!

The cocoa press is, in turn, crucial to the invention of milk chocolate as we know it! Daniel Peter created the first bar of milk chocolate by mixing pressed, de-fatted cocoa solids with condensed milk. The separation of cocoa solids and cocoa butter allowed for the creation of solid chocolate itself. Pressed cocoa would be mixed with sugar, and then a smaller amount of cocoa butter would be added back in. The history of drinking chocolate is the history of chocolate itself! Drinking chocolate is the origin of chocolate as we know it – in more ways than one! 

Drinking Chocolate

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