The Victorian Love Affair with Chocolate

By Sydney Jane Baily

Ah, chocolate. The exotic word, itself, evokes rich decadence. Indeed, for much of chocolate’s history, it was a luxury food for the wealthy. Most of us know its origins as a Mayan health drink, even a religious experience, or “god food.” Many also know how the Aztecs, who took over Mayan territory, used the cacao beans as currency. Fast forward a few centuries and the Spanish brought the beans to Europe where they started adding milk and sugar to the chocolate drink. Royalty by way of marriage took this beverage from Spain to the French court where it was heartily embraced, perhaps because it was reputed to be an aphrodisiac. (You know how the French are!) And, naturally, if the French enjoyed something, the British had to have it, too. And thus, finally, chocolate, mostly in the form of beans ready to be ground or already-processed cocoa powder, made it to the British Isles in the mid-seventeenth century and was extremely popular with the court of Charles II.

End of story? Don’t be absurd! No one had yet truly mastered removing all the cocoa butter from the ripened, fermented, roasted cacao beans. Thus, if you looked into your cup of hot chocolate, you would see a nasty oily substance while you choked down your bitter, grainy, gritty brew. Still, the promise was there. What’s more, chocolate, as they universally called the blend of cocoa powder and water or milk, was considered medicinal. Marie Antoinette drank it and ate small, pressed disks (“coins” or pistoles) of practically unsweetened cocoa created by pharmacist Sulpice Debauve for her headaches. Either the chocolate coins eased her pain or disguised medicine that did so. Reports vary. However, no one can deny that Debauve went on to found one of the most famous chocolate dynasties in history, Debauve & Gallais. In England, cocoa powder was sold for general good health at the chemist’s shop, what we now call a pharmacy in the U.S., right alongside eucalyptus oil for colds and tincture of opium for everything else!

Enter the Victorians, industrious, inventive, and sick of their oily chocolate morning beverage. For most of the nineteenth century, manufacturers spent hours and plenty of gold sovereigns improving cocoa.To help sop up the cocoa butter floating on the top of their favorite drink, cocoa companies added such starchy substances as arrowroot, potato powder, or flour. Next, manufacturers produced cheaper, adulterated cocoa powder that more of the masses could afford to consume, sadly sometimes adding anything from dangerous red lead to brick dust. And consume it, the masses did! In chocolate houses and in their own homes, too.

In any case, whether drinking chocolate for your health or for the steadily improving taste or even to keep up with the nobility, you might not love the gunk in your cup. In the first half of the century, both in England and abroad, chocolate producers discovered better methods of separating the cocoa from the solids until they had a purer cocoa powder. The struggling Cadbury brothers, George and Richard, already in the third generation of the famed Quaker Cadbury company, began using the so-called Dutch method to purify their product. They started selling their Cocoa Essence in 1866. It was the purest cocoa powder on the market, and they made sure well-known Victorian physicians told everyone how pure and healthy it was. Even though this cocoa cost more, people started to buy it, and the company that had nearly gone out of business was saved.

The Victorians loved their hot chocolate so much, as with most of Europe, they served it in special carafes called chocolate pots, like a coffee pot but with a special tool, a molinet. Usually, this tall stirring stick was made of wood although there were some metal ones, too. Basically, it was a whisk, kept in the silver or porcelain chocolate pot so one could give the beverage an enthusiastic stir, necessary when drinking the thicker, grainier chocolate made with cocoa that didn’t dissolve easily. After the middle of the nineteenth century, with the advent of purer cocoa, the molinet became less necessary, but it was still used to keep the chocolate frothed and well-blended. (See the cover of my latest book, The Duchess of Chocolate, for a pretty white-and-gold porcelain chocolate pot. Alas, the molinet is not shown.)

Better cocoa is obviously not the end of the story of the Victorian’s love affair with chocolate. In fact, this is when the chocolate we know and love today truly began. While creating purer cocoa, manufacturers had a leftover by-product: cocoa butter. From this, they extracted chocolate liquor, a bitter chocolate mud of cocoa solids and a little remaining cocoa butter. If you add sugar to this mud and blend back in more of the cocoa butter, you get … chocolate! “Had we but world enough and time wrote Andrew Marvell in To His Coy Mistress, then we would discuss the next chocolate improvement, an invention called conching. This extra blending and pounding and more blending made the chocolate smoother, creamier, more chocolatey-delicious and decadent than ever. But let’s move along. Trust me, conching happened, starting in Switzerland and spreading outward.

At last, the Victorian chocolate manufacturers had a chocolate product that could be formed into shapes, hardened, and ready to eat. In fact, the very first bar is attributed to well-known English chocolate manufacturer, Fry’s. They’re famous for their cream sticks (chocolate wrapped around a creamy, flavored center), also developed in the Victorian period and which you can still buy today. In 1847, Fry’s created a chocolate bar. Sadly, it was before conching was invented, and by today’s standards, we would find it a hot mess — not very sweet, nor very creamy. Nevertheless, the Victorians were ecstatic. They didn’t have to have milk or water and a chocolate pot. Now, they could have their healthy snack wherever and whenever they wanted. Some people chomped on this chocolate bar directly, while others, mired in the old ways, grated it into … you guessed it … milk or water to make hot chocolate.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, Victorians could choose from hundreds of cocoa producers, and suddenly, there were chocolate-makers, too. The Cadbury brothers once again wanted to produce the best and made a very smooth chocolate about twenty years after the bitter, gritty Fry’s bar. It turned out so well, they created their chocolate-covered biscuits, still available today. And then, cue the trumpets: the Fancy Box!

Cadbury’s Fancy Box, appearing at the very end of 1868, contained bonbons rather like our current-day truffles, with chocolatey fruit and marzipan centers. These were already available on the Continent but new to the British Isles. Did the Victorians like these fancy chocolates? They did! They even liked the tins in which the chocolates were sold. Painted with happy designs, such as Richard Cadbury’s own daughter with her kitten, some tins were lined with silk and had a mirror inside. People collected them, using these attractive containers for baubles and gloves — after they’d eaten all the chocolates, of course!

Soon, there were heart-shaped boxes of chocolates and chocolates shaped like hearts. Tin molds previously used for soap and candles now churned out chocolates perfectly shaped for Easter, Christmas, and Valentines Day. The Victorians consumed cocoa and chocolate on a grand scale. The cacao bean became an imperial commodity, precisely the same as tea, sugar, coffee, and spices. Queen Victoria enjoyed the treat, herself, and was said to give chocolate to her guards as presents.

People no longer needed to go to chocolate houses to get a cup of grainy, bitter cocoa. They could have delicious smooth hot chocolate in their homes as well as solid chocolate in every shape and size, and bonbons, too. The chocolate houses gradually became coffee houses, while confectionery stores blossomed in every town, no longer simply for toffee and boiled sweets. Chocolate had firmly and irrevocably arrived.

But what about milk chocolate, you ask? That’s another story about a stubborn Swiss chocolatier named Daniel Peter, which we’ll save for another day.

I hope you enjoyed this brief article on the Victorians and their love for chocolate. Recently, while writing my latest historical romance, The Duchess of Chocolate (Rare Confectionery Book One), I had the pleasure of reading and researching this very topic. My heroine, Amity Rare-Foure, and her sisters run their parents’ confectionery in the heart of Victorian London. Naturally, every morning, she drinks chocolate two cups from her chocolate pot stirred with a molinet. Thanks for reading! (Feel free to visit me at SydneyJaneBaily.com.)

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