The Popularization of Cacao in Europe… and a Little Thing Called Caffeine

It is no secret that as a species, humans are vulnerable to addiction. Granted, character traits and societal acceptance will exacerbate these compulsions, as it has been proven time and time again throughout the course of history, but there are contributing genetic factors that play a role in substance dependence (though the degree of the genetic influence is highly disputed (United States Congress 40). The combination of both social and at times instinctive pressure during an era of extreme wealth through royalty and structured courts resulted in the slow, yet effective European commercialization of one of our most precious commodities today: chocolate.

Chocolate (or rather, cacao in its base form) originated in the ancient civilizations of Mesoamerica. The Olmec, Maya, and Aztec empires all depended on cacao in many aspects of their societal structure.  In Aztec culture, soldiers would consume large amounts of cocoa on their journey to battle for endurance and strength—little did they know these wondrous abilities were due to caffeine surging in their bodies (Coe & Coe 95). However, it was not until cacao was introduced to the Spanish courts that the popularization, consumption, and subsequent mechanization in mass production occurred.

When cacao made the transatlantic journey into Spain, the utilitarian aspect of the substance was lost amongst the opulent, as there was no real necessity for its practical uses. Those who drank this luxury did not spend their days battling opposing foes; rather, the elite relished its exotic properties. Though medicinal uses were explored during the waves of exposure in Europe, most enjoyed chocolate in a recreational setting (Albala). In this new environment, cacao was adapted to a life of leisure and affluence, flavored with sweeteners and spices that were more harmonious to the European palate (Coe & Coe 133).

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This detail of a painted tile from the 18th century depicts a chocolotada (drinking party) in Valencia, Spain. This preparation varied greatly from the manual frothing of chocolate common in Aztec culture; the beginnings of the mechanization of chocolate production began with the methods above.

While there was a large population that consumed cacao, its acceptance across Europe was by no means an overnight success—the foreign qualities of this otherworldly substance incited both advocates and critics alike (Jamieson 272).

“I want to tell you, my dear child, that chocolate is no longer for me what it was, fashion has led me astray, as it always does. Everyone who spoke well of it now tells me bad things about it; it is cursed, and accused of causing one’s ills, it is the source of vapors and palpitations; it flatters you for a while, and then suddenly lights a continuous fever in you that leads to death…In the name of God, don’t keep it up, and don’t think that it is still the fashion of the fashionable. All the great and the less [great] say as much bad about it as they say good things about you…”

—Marie de Rabutin-Chantal, marquise de Sévigné (1926-96)

                                                            (Coe & Coe 155)

As the marquise de Sévigné laments in one of her letters, the effects of caffeine to those unaware and unprepared yielded some unfortunate results; in a very religious Europe, this was considered highly suspect and controversial. Yet not all experiences concluded so unfavorably; for many, the consumption of chocolate elicited positive responses—many hailed it as an aphrodisiac a mood-enhancer (Coe & Coe 160). Ironically, just a few months following her initial rejection of chocolate, the marquise had a change of heart:

“I have reconciled myself to chocolate, I took it the day before yesterday to digest my dinner, to have a good meal, and I took it yesterday to nourish me so that I could fast until evening: it gave me all the effects I wanted. That’s what I like about it: it acts according to my intention.”

 —Marie de Rabutin-Chantal, marquise de Sévigné (1926-96)

                                                            (Coe & Coe 155)

 

Although alcohol was widely popular and its outcomes were well known, caffeine and its effect on the human body were new to Europeans entirely. The jolt of energy, the curb of appetite, and psychological stimulants were but a few of the properties of cacao that piqued the curiosity of the Old World. Caffeinated drinks like chocolate were initially marketed as medicinal beverages to Europeans; however, the drinking of chocolate later became an urbanized ritual rather than a healing staple (Jamieson 279).

One by one, the major forces of Europe adopted the consumption of cacao, until chocolate and caffeine became a cross-continental sensation. This obsession with chocolate migrated from the Spanish Royal Courts to the far reaches of England, prompting the building of establishments like London’s famed Chocolate Houses (Jamieson 272).

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In the Club At White’s Coffee House, 1733. Don’t be fooled by the name of this painting by William Hogarth; White’s is considered London’s oldest and most exclusive gentleman’s club and was formally known as White’s Chocolate House. Read more at the Telegraph.co.uk.

Cacao monopolized the caffeine market for many years in a part of the world to which it was completely geologically foreign (that is, of course, until coffee and tea were introduced). If this strange and alien product somehow did not make it to Spain on that fateful voyage, it is very likely we would not have such easy access to chocolate and it most definitely would not have grown into the mammoth industry it is today.

 

 

Works Cited

Albala, Ken. “The Use and Abuse of Chocolate in 17th Century Medical Theory.” Food

and Foodways 15.1-2 (2007): 53-74. Web.

 

Biological Components of Substance Abuse and Addiction. Washington, DC: U.S.

Congress, Office of Technology Assessment, 1993. Print.

 

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. London: Thames

& Hudson, 2013. Print.

 

Detail of Painted Tile Panel Depicting a Chocolatada. 18th Cenutry. Valencia, Spain.

 

Green, Matthew. “The Surprising History of London’s Lost Chocolate Houses.”The Telegraph. 13 Dec. 2013. Web. 12 Feb. 2016.

 

Hogarth, William. In the Club at White’s Coffee House. 1733. From the Series ‘The

Rake’s Progress.’

 

Jamieson, R. W. “The Essence of Commodification: Caffeine Dependencies in the

Early Modern World.” Journal of Social History 35.2 (2001): 269-94. Web.

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