The Royal History of Chocolate - An Expensive Taste
Posted: 24 Apr 2022
In honour of the Queen’s platinum jubilee, we’re taking a look at chocolate’s royal history; a story of power, politics, and status.
Chocolate has been around for approximately 5,000 years, putting its very earliest consumption before records began!
In the records we do have, we know that chocolate had always played an important role in society and culture. And, over the course of this blog post, we’re going to take you on a journey through its beginnings in Mesoamerica, through to its place in today’s Buckingham Palace.
So, whether you’re a history buff tumbling down a rabbit hole, or a chocolatier looking for some extra knowledge to engage chatty, curious customers, settle in and let us take you on a trip through time.
700 B.C. (Approx.)-1520 - A Gift from The Gods
The first documentation of chocolate is found in Mayan culture. The Mayans were an ancient civilisation with a rich blend of cultural arts, spiritual beliefs, and societal rules.
There’s still dispute amongst modern historians over the geographical origin of the cacao tree (scientific name, Theobroma cacao). But, undisputedly, the Mayans were the first to describe cocoa in their hieroglyphs.
- Archaeological evidence suggests that cocoa was very closely linked to their spiritual practices, with the consumption of cocoa appearing alongside the ritual of human sacrifice.
- More physical samples in the tombs of high caste members of Mayan society indicate that cocoa was a drink common to the elite classes. Where the wealthy Mayans drank chocolate, spiced and frothy, more common folk consumed it in a porridge-like dish.
- When the Aztec Empire boomed in the 1400s, they began trading with the Mayans for cocoa, as they couldn’t grow the cocoa tree on their home soil.
- Like the Mayans, the Aztecs saw cocoa as a mystical gift from the Gods that could activate sacred energy within a person, and be used as an aphrodisiac, whilst also containing medicinal properties.
- It's said that the 16th-century Aztec ruler, Moctezuma II, drank 50 cups a day out of a golden goblet.
"From time to time they served him [Montezuma] in cups of pure gold a certain drink made from cacao. It was said that it gave one power over women, but this I never saw. I did see them bring in more than fifty large pitchers of cacao with froth in it, and he drank some of it, the women serving with great reverence."
- Bernal Diaz, 1568
- Early records tell us that cocoa was exchanged for livestock and human slaves, and it could even be used to pay taxes to the powerful.
1520-1600 - The Age of Discovery
In the 1500s, Spanish conquistadors stepped foot on the shores of South America for the first time.
Originally hoping to penetrate East Asia for better innings on the Silk Road, but finding part of what would become the ‘New World’, the Spanish invaded what is now Mexico, conquered the population there, and settled.
- The Aztec emperor, Montezuma II, offered Hernán Cortés and his company 50 jars of the drink, to which they thought that:
"...chocolate seemed more like a drink for pigs than a drink to be consumed by humans,"
- Girolamo Benzoni, La Historia del Mondo Nuovo (1565)
- Eventually, the supplies of the Spanish settlers ran thin, and so they turned to chocolate, looking for extra nourishment. At the same time, many average-income Spaniards were also marrying elite Aztec women, usually as concubines, which helped to hasten the spread of chocolate throughout the new Spanish population.
“Loathsome to such as are not acquainted with it, having a scum or froth that is very unpleasant taste. Yet it is a drink very much esteemed among the Indians, wherewith they feast noble men who pass through their country. The Spaniards, both men and women that are accustomed to the country are very greedy of this chocolate.”
- Jose De Acosta, late 1500s.
- They took the chocolate and, whilst it was in its ground paste form, opted to add ingredients like sugar, cinnamon, and vanilla to the recipe.
- In a grand banquet held at the Plaza Grande, Mexico, built upon the ruins of the Aztec capital, Carlos I of Spain and Francis I of France, celebrated peace between their countries over chocolate served on slabs of gold.
(1520s) Blown in by the "Chocolate Winds"
- The Spanish first began transporting cocoa to Spain in the 1520s.
- At this time, there were a few run-ins with pirates who didn’t yet understand the value of cacao, and so burned the cargo of the Spanish ships that they intercepted.
- Spanish priests were the ones to spread the recipe amongst congregations. A quote from the Benedict monks at the time was:
"Do not drink the cocoa, anyone but friar, sir, or brave soldier."
1520-1600 - Fit for a Queen
Just as within the city walls of Mesoamerica, chocolate remained a symbol of luxury, wealth, and power on Spanish soil.
It was only served to royalty, was only affordable to Spain's most elite citizens, and was very well received by high society.
Chocolate quickly became part of 16th and 17th-century palace rituals for visitors, as an element of entertainment, and was especially a hit with the noblewomen.
- Ladies of the court offered cocoa, along with their usual sweets, to their visiting ladies, and the noblewomen liked it so much that they requested to be served chocolate in church as well.
- The request was, of course, refused, and the consumption of chocolate in churches was banned by the bishops. However, they did manage to get away with setting up ‘Chocolatadas’ which were gatherings held after religious services, where the women would chat and drink chocolate to their hearts' content.
- In portraits of royalty and upper-class society from around this time, you will often see them depicted holding cups of cocoa, with the pocillo (a pot especially used to make and serve the chocolate) sat on a table nearby, as a symbol of the subjects’ wealth and status.
- Gradually, the accessibility of chocolate made its way through to the lower classes, and, eventually, chocolate was served, using a similar recipe, in all Spanish houses within large cities.
1600-1660 - Vive Le Chocolat!
By the 17th century, chocolate was well accepted and adored by the Spanish royal court, elites, and average income citizens. Chocolate had been consumed in Spain for at least 100 years, with its recipes kept a secret amongst high society, and was ready to spread through Europe.
- In 1615, the marriage of 14-year-old Anne of Austria (daughter of Phillip III of Spain) married 14-year-old Louis XIII of France introduced chocolate to France for, possibly, the first time. It was given as a wedding gift, apparently encased in an oak chest.
- Later, it’s said that it was Louis XIV, the Sun King, who popularised it amongst the royal court when he married Maria Theresa of Spain in 1660. It was then that chocolate became a habitual feature of Versailles entertainment and cuisine.
- In the hands of the French, the Spanish recipe was heralded, experimented on, and altered to create new flavour profiles, all in liquid form.
- Again, chocolate kept its place as a luxury enjoyed exclusively by royalty, symbolising, as ever, power, wealth, and a healthy sex drive.
1655-1700 From Sheep's Droppings to Gold
It wasn’t until quite a bit later that the British caught hold of the chocolate frenzy.
By the time chocolate made it to the palate of British high society, the Spanish had been importing and refining chocolate for around 150 years.
- In 1579, with a written pass from the British monarchy, a group of pirates intercepted a Spanish ship, carrying cargo from South America to Spain. Upon finding the cocoa beans, they thought they were sheep droppings, and burned the lot.
- As the years following the initial interception went by, the British remained somewhat unaware of chocolate and its status in power and politics, until the chocolate craze spread to France. It’s unclear when exactly chocolate made it to England, but it’s estimated to have been in the early 1600s.
- It wasn’t until the English took Jamaica from the Spanish in 1655 that chocolate really took off in Britain. The Spanish were running cocoa plantations in Jamaica, and, when the English took the island, they took the plantations too.
- With new valuable plantations under their control, the English began producing their own sweet chocolate drink, which was lapped up by the royals as an exotic display of modernity and exclusivity.
- Around the same time, Frenchmen were setting up “Chocolate Houses” in England. Despite its status as a fashionable display of wealth for anyone in European high society, when chocolate came to England, it was initially reserved for men.
It would be served to the raucous tables of wealthy men in private parlours, where they would gamble, discuss politics, and indulge in food and drink away from their wives.
It’s even said that your choice of Chocolate House depended on, and was a signal of, your political leaning.
Chocolate Houses, in fact, were such a popular meeting place of upper class gentlemen, who would use the space to form and organise contentious political groups, that Charles II tried to put a stop to the Houses - he was unsuccessful.
- In 1690, King William III and Queen Mary II had Hampton Court Palace rebuilt, and saw to it that there were kitchens dedicated to the making of chocolate. It’s documented that the King and Queen were extremely fond of chocolate and its health benefits, taking a cup at breakfast and at levee (a ritualistic dressing in front of a chosen few members of the court).
- The old English recipe:
Water and milk, sugar, egg yolks, and brandy!
1700-1900 - The Chocolate Revolution
The turn of the 18th century marked the rise of the Industrial Revolution, and new whirring, chugging inventions were to propel chocolate production to modern dynamic heights.
What was a delight for the wealthy few was about to become a luxury of the many.
- In England, chocolatiers began to try more experimental flavour pairings in their beverages. They began using fine ingredients such as jasmine, rosewater, cinnamon, vanilla, and even ambergris (a solid, waxy substance produced in the stomach of sperm whales, which was also used to make perfume!).
- With new technologies also came new ideas. During the early days of this period, hot debates were being had in the academic world about the alleged health properties of chocolate. It was argued that the inclusion of sugar and spices tainted the chocolate’s nutritional potential. But, nevertheless, the craze continued.
- In 1709, Queen Anne spent £50 (£11,000 in today's money) on chocolate in one month!
- 1778 - Joseph Townsend invented a machine that used hydraulic energy to crush and grind the cocoa beans. This invention meant that a higher volume of chocolate could be processed, which increased production significantly.
- 1828 - Coenraad Johannes Van Houten developed a new process for turning the beans into a fine powder. This mean that chocolate was finally able to be mass-produced, and, more importantly, accessible to the many instead of the few.
- 1842 - an Englishman by the name of Charles Barry moved to Meulan, France, and created the famous “Cocoa Barry” powder.
- 1847 - House of Fry in Bristol moulded the first ever chocolate block.
- 1853 - House of Fry rival, Cadbury, becomes Queen Victoria’s official provider, on the appointment of a royal warrant.
- 1875 - Swiss Daniel Peter added Henri Nestlé powdered milk to chocolate (which Henri invented in 1867).
- 1879 - Rodolphe Lindt refined the conching process, helping to unlock the depth and layers of flavour, and give the chocolate a smoother, creamier mouthfeel.
As you can see, the 18th and 19th centuries were a huge moment for chocolate’s development, refinement, and solidification within the public palate. You could argue that, had it not been for chocolate, a few of the revolutionary technologies of this time may never have happened - or would have taken longer to be realised.
By 1848, both drinking chocolate and solid bar chocolate were readily available to the masses. Finally, everyone could experience the rush of energy, the sweet, complex flavour, and the warm hum of delight that the Mayans had first felt thousands of years before.
Present - Expensive Tastes
But what about our Royals now? Does our Queen Elizabeth II enjoy chocolate as she changes clothes in front of an audience of specially selected members of the court?
Well, we’re not sure about the levee, but what we do know is Queen Elizabeth gets her chocs from one of Britian’s first (and, now, longest-standing) chocolate shops, Charbonnel et Walker, Bond Street, London.
Charbonnel et Walker was established in 1875, and has since been the favourite of a line of Royals including Princess Diana, Princess Margaret, and Edward VII.
A box of their finest chocolates can sell for a neat £280.
The service of the chocolate shop has been under Royal warrant for many years now, and although they can’t tell us exactly the Queen’s orders, or how much she spends, they have divulged some interesting details.
According to Charbonnel et Walker, our Queen Elizabeth II enjoys dark, bitter chocolate, with aromatic floral notes, and Bendicks Bittermints, small dark chocolates filled with clean mint - excellent taste!