The Elite World of Chocolate: Cultural Significance in Early Europe

Across time and space, from the Aztec Empire to Baroque Europe, chocolate has been associated with upper class culture. While chocolate was first introduced to Europe in the sixteenth century as a medicine with strong curative powers, it evolved into an elite drink during the grandiose Baroque Age. Chocolate was popularized throughout Europe and came to occupy a distinctive place within upper class society because of the complex material and social culture that the aristocracy and nobility created around it.

“It was during the Baroque Age that the beverage [chocolate] made its major journeys, and it was in the Baroque palaces and mansions of the wealthy and powerful that it was elaborated and consumed.” – The True History of Chocolate (Coe and Coe 125)

Europeans crafted specialized objects to enhance the quality and presentation of chocolate. By creating intricate paraphernalia and drinking processes, they elevated the consumption of chocolate to elite ritual ceremony. The development of objects including chocolate pots, cups, and saucers for the preparation and serving of chocolate in Baroque Europe indicate the extent to which the consumption of chocolate was a show of extravagance. The Spanish, Italians, and French developed their own varieties of specialty chocolate-pots in copper, gold, and silver, such as the one in the image below, (Coe and Coe 156) for the stirring, frothing, and serving of chocolate.

Joseph-Théodore_Van_Cauwenbergh_-_Chocolate_Pot_-_Walters_571802-1.jpg
Chocolatiére (1774), made of silver and amarath wood

Particularly in France, these chocolatières were prized by the nobility, and the Dauphin Louis XIV himself received chocolatières as gifts from foreign guests, such as the King Narai of Siam in 1686. A body of literature surrounding the correct usage of chocolatières and other objects involved in the chocolate consumption process emerged, and the French debated chocolatière design in cookbooks and culinary treatises. For example, an issue of contention was whether there should be a hole in the chocolatière lid, to allow for the passing of the handle of the moulinet, used to stir the liquid chocolate, or if the lid should not be pierced, as with a caffetière, to avoid the “cumbersome” opening and closing of the pot with a moulinet passing through it (Grivetti and Shapiro 91).

With an elaborate material culture surrounding it, chocolate emerged as a fundamental element of royal and high society across countries including Italy, France, England, and Spain. Chocolate was served at public functions and levees at royal courts across Europe, such as Versailles (Coe and Coe 156).

Social gatherings offered individuals the opportunity to display their collection of objects relating to chocolate as well as their innovative methods of chocolate preparation. Esteemed recipes came to be associated with particular places, such as Francesco Redi’s jasmine chocolate at the Tuscan Court (Coe and Coe 143). These recipes were time-consuming and complex, requiring ingredients unavailable to most individuals. Redi’s chocolate, for example, required ten days to prepare and 250 jasmine flowers per kilogram of cocoa nibs a day for each of these ten days.

 

poster-the-penthievre-family-or-the-cup-of-chocolate-115756.jpg
The Family of the Duke of Penthievre or The Cup of Chocolate (1768) shows a noble family drinking chocolate in a salon, illustrating the type of individuals who consumed chocolate in Baroque Europe.

The upper bourgeoisie class also consumed chocolate in increasing amounts. In England, chocolate was served in traditional coffee-houses, which functioned as important social institutions within English society, by the mid seventeenth century (Coe and Coe, 167).

Chocolate consumption flourished in Baroque Europe because of the extensive material and social culture that developed around it. The luxury item grew in popularity not simply because of its taste or perceived medicinal qualities, but because it offered the European upper class an opportunity to construct a set of customs and social practices around its consumption. Indeed, chocolate became a symbol of wealth, and a vehicle by which one could exhibit his or her privilege. Chocolate was expensive to begin with, and the construction of an extravagant world around chocolate made it even more inaccessible to the lower classes.

 

Ultimately, mass production technologies transformed chocolate from an elite privilege into a European staple food. However, even today, chocolate remains linked to notions of opulence and luxury.

 

Works Cited

Charpentier, Jean Baptiste. The Penthievre Family or The Cup of Chocolate, 1768. Digital image. PBS Learning Media. Web.

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1996. Print.

Grivetti, Louis, and Howard-Yana Shapiro. Chocolate: History, Culture, and Heritage. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2009. Print.

Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Berkeley: Ten Speed, 2009. Print.

Van Cauwenbergh, Joseph-Théodore. Chocolate Pot. Digital image. Wikimedia Commons. Mar. 2012. Web.

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