Oh, chocolate, our guilty pleasure, our sometime luxury, our go-to pick-me-up. How do we justify eating thee…let me count the ways.
Actually, let’s not. Can’t we just acknowledge that we like it and that a bit of chocolate from time-to-time, no matter how crappy, won’t do us any harm? That having a bit of a boost on a bad day is OK? Apparently not: we seem to have become so obsessed with the concept of guilt that sometimes we seem to derive more satisfaction from convoluted justification than we do from the act of consumption. Advertisers are happy to help out – you have natural cravings (especially women, allegedly), it contains [insert trace element which is of no relevance or benefit in such minuscule quantités here], it releases [equally spurious advertising claim here], and the old chestnut, it’s dead sexy. And we, sadly, are complicit in the game.
It has, however, ever been thus. Chocolate was, for the majority of its long history, drunk rather than eaten. It was introduced to Europe by the Spanish, who had discovered it when they invaded South America. There, it was drunk cold, mixed with water, spices and sometimes ground maize. It was drunk at court, as well as being associated with religious rituals, including human sacrifice. On occasion the beans were also used as currency.
The tree from which chocolate beans derived was as alien, to European eyes, as the contexts in which it was consumed. The fruit, which contained the beans, grew directly from the trunk, and only grew in very specific, inhospitable conditions. Small wonder that chocolate quickly gained exotic associations, and that when it was brought back to Europe, it was seen as a dangerous luxury, rich with the heady scent of far-off battles, gold-filled palaces and infused with mystery.
Chocolate spread slowly through the court and elites of Spain, through to those of Italy, France and eventually England (possibly apocryphal tales were told of English pirates raiding Spanish ships and throwing the precious cargo of beans overboard, thinking them to be worthless). On the way it became a hot drink, like tea and coffee, which were coming in at around the same time. Also like them, it was often mixed with milk. It was made with a new and exciting gadget, the molinillo (also called a moulinet, and, in the UK, rather more prosaically, a chocolate whisk). Spice was still often added, and one mid 17th century recipe calls for chilli, aniseed, cloves, cinamon and orange flower water – a heady mix of old and new world. Increasingly too, it was mixed with sugar and therein, according to some commentators, lay a problem.
The new drink was sufficiently popular by the second half of the 17th century for it to be the subject of elite angst. Humoural medicine, while waning, was still important, and there was a great deal of worry about the exact properties of this unknown substance. What would it do to the delicate aristocratic constitution? Indefatigable letter-writer and early adapter, Madame de Sévigné, was sufficiently worried that she gave it up, then started drinking it again, while wondering in epistolary form whether it might have been responsible for the recent birth of a ‘little black boy’ to a courtier she knew. Then, as now, there was money to be made in advising the wealthy on their dietary habits, and both philosophers and medical practitioners waded into the fray. The pope declared that it was fine to drink during Lent, and not dangerous to its devotees eternal soul. No need for guilt! Consume with enthusiasm. Others were less sure. In 1706 Dr Duncan, a Scot working in France, published the tellingly-titled Wholesome Advice Against The Abuse Of Hot Liquors. In it he blamed chocolate (along with coffee and tea) for everything from infertility to jaundice and miscarriage to baldness. He admitted that it could be good for some people, but railed against it being seen as a universal panacea, not least as medicines should taste bad, whereas ‘since [it was] made delicious with sugar [it is] become poison’.
Other familiar tropes were also already circulating. Appended to the English translation of the spicy recipe above was a tongue-in-cheek smutty poem, tens of verses long, and which afforded to chocolate the gift of lust. According to the author – and Dr Duncan, as well as many other concerned writers – chocolate rated as off-the-scale hot on the humoural chart: it inflamed the senses, incited lewd thoughts, and loosened otherwise upright morals. Chocolate was, in short, a potent aphrodisiac, enabling even the elderly to get frisky if they had but a mere taste of it.
Sex, luxury, guilt and vague medical claims: by the early 18th century all the elements which surround chocolate today were well-established. They were, with the exception of luxury – chocolate remained expensive – also as spurious as they are today. We claim history is past and gone: it’s alive and well when it comes to a Cadbury Flake.
Annie Gray is a historian specialising in British food and dining, c.1650-1950. She’s the resident food historian on BBC Radio 4’s The Kitchen Cabinet and her first book, The Greedy Queen: eating with Victoria is out in May 2017.