The Evolution of Chocolate in Early Europe

Relative to the rest of the world, it took awhile for Europeans to discover sugar. But once sugar became a prominent food in society, its uses and consumption skyrocketed. “In 1000 AD, few Europeans knew of the existence of sucrose, or cane sugar. But soon after they learned about it…sugar figured in their medicine, literary imagery, and displays of rank. By no later than 1800, sugar had become a necessity – albeit a costly and rare one – in the diet of every English person; by 1900, it was supplying nearly one-fifth of the calories in the English diet” (Mintz 5-6). The nature of the rise of sugar, cacao, and chocolate consumption in Europe is quite interesting. As Mintz explained, nutrition is an extremely important biological process and even more important than the need for sex (Mintz 3-4). And as we learned in lecture, natural human taste desires can be observed as early as infancy. Clearly, sugar and sweetness is a taste that humans greatly desire. So it comes as no surprise that once sugar and chocolate were discovered, their consumption greatly rose. Chocolate in early Europe came to prominence with a variety of beliefs surrounding it, some of which are not still accepted today.

The above image, titled “The Morning Chocolate shows an image of a woman being served chocolate in bed in the morning in Europe. This is likely a woman of wealth or nobility given the formal presentation of the chocolate, signifying its importance.

An interesting point to note about sugar, cacao, and chocolate as they relate to early Europe is that these foods were not only used for consumption. In fact, Mintz explained that there were five main uses for sugar as its popularity grew in Britain. These uses were medical, spice condiments, decorative, sweeteners, and preservatives. One particular use of chocolate that is quite intriguing is how it was used as a form of medicine. In today’s day and age, it is somewhat comical to think of chocolate as a form of medicine since we generally consume it simply as a delicious treat. But The Use and Abuse of Chocolate in 17th Century Medical Theory by Ken Albala details the medical culture that revolved around chocolate in early Europe. As the title of this article suggests, the medical “uses” of chocolate might have actually been more of “abuse” by medical physicians. “It was in the interest of physicians, particularly those selling chocolate as a drug, to carefully define its therapeutic values to steer consumers away from random consumption. Late 16th and early 17th century commentators believed that narrowing its therapeutic applications would deter patients from taking it under any pretext, including gastronomic pleasure. Authors in the latter half of the 17th century, especially in Northern Europe, on the other hand, offered chocolate as a panacea for nearly any ailment” (Albala 54). This is evidence to suggest that chocolate was not necessarily believed to have much medical benefit, but rather physicians were abusing their power and conflict of interest to convince patients that chocolate in fact had medical benefits so that they could sell them their own chocolate. They faced competition from actual chocolate vendors which is why they needed to convince people to buy their own “medical” chocolate. Since chocolate was a relatively new discovery/creation, it is not crazy to see why people thought it would have medical benefits. But Albala explains that as the 17th century went on, people in Europe began to understand the truth behind chocolate. “Ultimately, the gradual shift among theorists, from restricting chocolate for medicinal purposes early in the century to praising it as a universal drug and nutritious food, aided in the transformation of chocolate from a medicine to a luxury item taken almost exclusively for pleasure” (Albala 70). Albala went on to explain that as the years went on, chocolate became solely a food item with mass consumption as was not believed to have any therapeutic benefits. Looking at this from the perspective of a chocolate lover in 2020, it is amazing to think of this as part of chocolate’s history. I would absolutely love it if I went to the doctor feeling sick and they told me to have a Hershey’s bar to make me feel better. Sadly, I don’t think that will ever happen and I will be stuck having to drink that terrible cough medicine.

The above image, titled “Liotard-Lady Pouring Chocolate” shows a woman about to consume chocolate. This woman may have been consuming the chocolate for medicinal purposes in her own home.

Food of the Gods: Cure for Humanity? A Cultural History of the Medicinal and Ritual Use of Chocolate by Teresa Dillinger provides some more insight into the medical beliefs surrounding chocolate in early Europe. Dillinger shares an account of a man named William Hughes from 1672 who tells about his experience consuming chocolate. He stated that, “It is the most wholesome and most excellent drink that is yet found out…it is good alone to make up a breakfast, needing no other food, either bread or drink, is beneficial to the body…it helpeth nature to concoct phlegme and superfluous moisture in the stomack…it strengthens the vitals, and is good against fevers” (Dillinger 2066S). This is an example of a person in early Europe who actually believed that chocolate had medicinal effects. We now know that these effects were probably not actually occurring and they were probably just a placebo.

The above image, titled “Poseidon taking chocolate from Mexico to Europe” shows Poseidon, a mythical figure finding chocolate in Mexico to bring back to Europe. The fact that a mythical figure is portrayed forcefully finding chocolate underlines the importance that Europeans placed on the good.

It is quite intriguing to reflect on the history of chocolate in early Europe. In only a couple of hundred years, sugar went from being something that only the rich and noble could obtain to an expensive part of the diet to something that everyone consumed everyday. The colonial European chocolate recipe ingredients chart that we saw in lecture visually explains how dozens of ingredients were used in chocolate recipes, underlining the importance of chocolate in early European diets. Thinking anecdotally about the topic, it comes as no surprise to me that chocolate had such a drastic rise in consumption and beliefs that surrounded it. Who could not try chocolate and not fall in love with it?

References:

Albala, Ken. “The Use and Abuse of Chocolate in 17th Century Medical Theory.” Food and Foodways, vol. 15, no. 1-2, 2007, pp. 53–74.

Dillinger, Teresa, et al. “Food of the Gods: Cure for Humanity? A Cultural History of the Medicinal and Ritual Use of Chocolate.” The Journal of Nutrition, vol. 130, no. 8S, 2000, pp. 2057S–72S.

File:Liotard-Lady Pouring Chocolate.jpg. (2019, June 12). Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository. Retrieved 01:20, March 10, 2020 from https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Liotard-Lady_Pouring_Chocolate.jpg&oldid=354096764.

“File:Pietro Longhi La cioccolata del mattino The Morning Chocolate 1775-1780.jpg.” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository. 29 Jan 2020, 12:37 UTC. 10 Mar 2020, 01:04 from https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Pietro_Longhi_La_cioccolata_del_mattino_The_Morning_Chocolate_1775-1780.jpg&oldid=390803358.

File:Poseidon taking chocolate from Mexico to Europe (from Chocolata Inda, 1644).png. (2019, July 28). Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository. Retrieved 01:27, March 10, 2020 from https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Poseidon_taking_chocolate_from_Mexico_to_Europe_(from_Chocolata_Inda,_1644).png&oldid=359819431.

Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power : the Place of Sugar in Modern History. Penguin Books, 1986.

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