Before the Bar: The Intriguing History of Drinking Chocolate

By Elizabeth  ·  24th December 2017  ·  History & Culture

‘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’. 

Although the method and ingredients may be slightly different, this could only be a recipe for hot chocolate. But where did it all start? 

Humans have been consuming chocolate for centuries. We Brits eat around 7,500 bars over our lifetime. But chocolate bars have only been around for 150 years or so. What did humans do before the bar? 

Drink of the Gods 

It all starts 4,000 years ago with the Olmec, an early civilisation in Latin America who turned the cocoa plant into a drinking chocolate for religious and medical use. 

However, it was the Mayans who really got into it, roasting and grinding cocoa 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. 

Arrival in Europe 

Chocolate came into Europe from the New World in the early 1500s on the ships of Spanish conquistadors and friars. Like the Mayans, Catholic monks in Spain also found chocolate and religion to be a match made in heaven, drinking it before religious ceremonies. 

It took rather a long time – around a century – for chocolate to land in France. At this point, it was still very much the preserve of the rich. The royals loved it and it’s hard to tell who was the biggest chocoholic:

Louis XV came up with his own make-at-home recipe (which, naturally, he made in his apartment at the Palace of Versailles). For the curious, heat equal parts chocolate and water, whisking in an egg yolk just before serving for a silken sheen! 

Competing for the title is Marie Antoinette, who arrived at the French Court in 1770 with a dedicated Personal Chocolate Maker To The Queen. His job was to combine Marie Antoinette’s beloved chocolate with fashionable ingredients such as orange blossom and sweet almonds. 

So who was the bigger chocoholic, Louis XV or Marie Antoinette? 

Meanwhile in England… 

Chocolate arrived in England in the mid 1600s and made a big hit in London, where chocolate houses sprung up on many street corners. However, unlike today’s coffee shops, these establishments quickly became known for anarchy and licentiousness, a hotbed of gambling, hobnobbing, and politicking. 

One famous chocolate house, The Cocoa Tree, had an underground tunnel to take plotters and traitors safely out of the premises. Not surprisingly, Charles II tried to have them banned in 1675. To the chocolate-drinkers’ delight, he was unsuccessful. 

How to Do Drinking Chocolate – 1600s Style 

1652 saw the publication of Captain James Wadsworth’s translation, ‘Chocolate, Or, an Indian Drinke’ by the Spaniard Antonio Collemenero. A fun and somewhat bossy book on all things drinking chocolate, here are the author’s guidelines: 

  • Be moderate – ‘you must onely take five or six ounces, in the morning, if it be in winter’. 
  • 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’.  
  • Drink it hot or cold, with or without the skum, but the skum (cocoa fat) when separated from the cocoa ‘causeth Melancholy’, so beware! 
  • Drinking chocolate is a panacea for everything;
    • From digestion to consumption, conception to delivery, jaundice and plague of the guts to lung problems and the green sickness (your guess is as good as ours!?).  

The 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. 

A Prickly Problem 

Drinking chocolate presented a dilemma for fashion-conscious gents of the time; beards and drinking chocolate were just not compatible! The cocoa butter had a nasty habit of settling in their long coiffed beards. 

Unfortunately for that first generation of cocoa drinkers, it wasn’t until 1828 that Dutch father and son duo Van Hootens came up with the cocoa press to force the cocoa butter out of the beans. 

Bearded hot chocolate lovers, be thankful! Cocoa butter removed, the cocoa combined much better with either milk or chocolate, resulting in a much less greasy drink. 

The pressed cocoa would be mixed with sugar; later, a smaller amount of cocoa butter would be added back in. If you have read our article on chocolate production, this extracting and re-adding may be ringing a bell! And you’d be right – here we have the first steps towards the humble chocolate bar. 

Drinking Chocolate

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