Sunday, March 10, 2013

A Cup of Hot Chocolate, S’good for What Ails Ya, Part 2

The first Englishmen to encounter chocolate were pirates, or, more politely, privateers, commissioned by the English monarch to prey on Spanish vessels. They didn't know what it was at first. On at least one occasion in the 1500s, English privateers burned a shipload of valuable cacao seeds, having no idea what the ugly little brown things were worth. Chocolate reached England in the middle of the seventeenth century, just as two other exotic beverages—coffee and tea—were making their debut.

It was no coincidence that these beverages were all consumed hot and sweet. “Hot melts sugar,” says Jim Gay. He’s Colonial Williamsburg’s Historic Foodways journeyman cook and an authority on the history and manufacture of chocolate. “All these beverages were sweetened with cane sugar. The British didn’t start growing sugar on Barbados until the 1640s. First comes sugar, then comes chocolate and coffee and tea . . . all of them introduced to the British in the late 1640s.”

The first known English recipe for chocolate called for sugar, long red pepper, cloves, aniseed, almonds, nuts, orange flower water, and, of course, cacao. “The hotter it is drunk, the better it is,” said the recipe’s author in 1652. Unaware of the Aztec custom of drinking it cool, the recipe said that “being cold it may doe harm.”

Chocolate was usually sold ground and pressed into cakes wrapped in paper. In England, the cakes were small, two or four ounces, because of the high cost of the product. In America where it was cheaper, the one-pound size was more common. By the start of the eighteenth century, the British were drinking chocolate with water and brandy, with milk, and with port or sherry. All three versions used sugar and spices and were frothed with a chocolate mill.

Once it snatched Jamaica from the Spanish in 1655, England had its own island with flourishing cacao plantations. Chocolate became widely available, although still expensive. Making it more so were the import duties levied on all chocolate brought into England. In the Atlantic colonies, however, the duties were lower, putting the cost of the beverage within reach of more pocketbooks. Perhaps that explains why, at the time of the Revolutionary War, there was one commercial chocolate maker in Britain and nearly seventy in the thirteen colonies.

Some historians think that chocolate drinking spread from England to its North American colonies, but it seems more likely that it came directly in ships that plied the trade routes from the West Indies to the major colonial ports of Boston, Philadelphia, New York, and Newport, Rhode Island. Whatever the route, chocolate arrived in English North America at about the same time it arrived in England. It was available as chocolate nuts, as shells, and in processed “chocolate cakes,” lumps of grated powder and sugar ready to be stirred into boiling water, mixed with whatever ingredients one preferred, and frothed with the little hand mill.Those who bought the cacao seed had to roast and grind the chocolate themselves or, more likely, have their servants or slaves do the tedious job. Those who, like Martha Washington, purchased the cacao shells, steeped them in hot water to make a thin chocolaty drink that was easier on the stomach than oily chocolate.

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