The Social Drink of the Spanish Elite: Chocolate and its Significance in the Enlightenment Era

The Enlightenment Era, also known as the Age of Reason, took place in Europe and North America prominently in the 17th and 18th centuries. This time period is most known for advancements in philosophy, art, and culture among educated intellectuals. The era is characterized by using reason and logic to question longstanding truths surrounding Christianity and science, as well as prevailing government practices, and freedoms surrounding the human condition (Power, 2002).

In the Salon of Madame Geoffrin in 1755 painted by Lemonnier in 1812

It is often overgeneralized that the “salon-like” philosophe social gatherings were similar in structure, however, during this period across Europe, patterns of socialization were unalike and individual in their own respects. Each gathering was unique to its region and largely influenced by cultural tradition with respect to chocolate. Out of all of the different social gatherings observed in the Western World during the Enlightenment Era, chocolate being served as a drink was most prevalent in the Spanish Tertulia social gatherings. Such gatherings played an essential role in shaping European Enlightenment culture, although this influence is often overlooked and underplayed.

Tertulias were social gatherings of the wider Spanish social classes where chocolate was served during the latter end of the 18th century Enlightenment Era (Samper 2001). These gatherings happened periodically, like a modern-day book club would convene, to discuss and debate current political issues, philosophical dilemmas, the arts, or even upcoming social gatherings such as bullfighting. These social gatherings took place in private, and semiprivate areas, and were an important catalyst for political, and cultural change in the Enlightenment era. Tertulias, in particular, were known for sharing and circulating various literary works and art. They shaped patterns of socialization, facilitated the exchange of ideas, and helped the spread of information amongst Spaniards with chocolate playing a pivotal role at such events.

A Gathering in Santiago, 1790 by Claudio Gay in 1854

Chocolate was first adopted by the upper classes of Spain as a type of entertainment drink. It became so popular especially among the noblewomen who hosted each other for social gatherings. This was in part because Spanish noblewomen were marrying French royalty, and the Jesuits were bringing over the custom of drinking chocolate (Llopis, 1998). Chocolate was a regular offering at such tertulias along with various sweets, pastries, ice cream, and shaved ice. Traditionally in Spain, chocolate refreshments were served hot and made with a water base; however, as the Enlightenment era progressed Spaniards started crafting the drink the French way by using milk. Chocolate was a central component to the offerings delivered and was deemed the star of the gathering as it was the trendiest drink to be served.

Hot Chocolate by Raimundo Madrazo y Garreta in 1884

These chocolate drinks were a signal of elegance, sophistication, and extravagance.. These chocolate refreshments were plentiful and free-flowing within the tertulia. Chocolate took on a prestigious, and rich connotation because the chocolate drinks at this time had become an important staple amongst the Catalan nobility. Chocolate was the favorited drink among the Spanish enlightenment socialites from the 16th century until the 18th century, when coffee became popular in a similar fashion to how chocolate had been served at social gatherings. Overall, chocolate was the prevailing favorited non-alcoholic drink of the Spaniards at these tertulias.

When one thinks of the Age of Reason, often the first thing that comes to mind is the French salons. Surprisingly, among the French philosophes, coffee was a more popular drink than chocolate (Coe, 2013). In Tastes of Paradise, Schivelbusch describes chocolate in Europe as being Catholic, aristocratic, and particularly southern, while coffee is described as northern, protestant, and middle class. It was truly at Tertulias in the south of Spain where chocolate drinking was so vital to the Spanish upper class. While chocolate was still being served in different forms in countries such as England, Italy, and America as part of food, medicine, and even poison at the time, chocolate took on a level of popularity in drink form in Southern Spain that was unseen anywhere else during the time. Chocolate drinks were essential to the Tertulias and played a central role in gathering Spaniards to discuss relevant Enlightenment issues.

Works Cited

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. London: Thames and Hudson, 2013.

“En Ce Moment Important Old Master Paintings and Sculpture.” Lemonnier, Anicet-charles-gabrie ||| History ||| Sotheby’s N08952lot4csp3fr. Accessed March 22, 2019. http://www.sothebys.com/fr/auctions/ecatalogue/2013/old-master-paintings-n08952/lot.93.html.

Gay, Claudio, 1800-1873. Una tertulia en Santiago, 1840 . Disponible en Memoria Chilena, Biblioteca Nacional de Chile http://www.memoriachilena.gob.cl/602/w3-article-99696.html. Accedido en 3/21/2019.

Llopis, Manuel Martínez. Historia De La Gastronomía Española. Barcelona: Altaya, 1998.

Madrazo Y Garreta, Raimundo. Hot Chocolate. 1884.

Power, Marcus. “Enlightenment and the era of modernity.” The companion to development studies (2002): 65.

Samper, María de los Ángeles Pérez. “Spaces and practices of sociability in the eighteenth century: social gatherings, refreshments and coffee in Barcelona.” Notebooks of modern history 26 (2001): 11-55

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