Cacao, especially in its early history, was considered to have unique healing powers and this ‘food of the gods’ was revered to various extents in various cultures. Cacao’s most ancient roots evidence this reverence in Mesoamerica, but the same themes can be traced through its introduction to Europe, particularly in France. The historical narrative told by the use of chocolate in the royal courts of Louis XIV to Louis XVI of France parallels that of ancient Aztec culture with respect to medicinal uses and elite status.
The Aztecs, unlike other Mesoamerican cultures at the time regarded cacao to be a substance reserved for the elite. Nobility and merchants were the main consumers of cacao, with warriors being the only commoners with the privilege of consuming it (Coe, 95). Chocolate was featured at the conclusions of royal banquets (Coe, 95), indicating a perception that it was special enough to be enjoyed separate of all other food and beverage. In the Aztec culture, the medicinal benefits derived from cacao were wide ranging. They included: healing stomach problems, diarrhea, cough, exhaustion, and curing sterility (Hurst, 35). While most Mesoamerican cultures believed in the healing powers of cacao, it is not known exactly why chocolate was an elite food in ancient Aztec culture. It may be the combination of religious significance they placed on cacao and the controlling favoritism towards the food exhibited by Aztec rulers.
Chocolate in 15th-16th Century France
The story behind the introduction of chocolate to France is unclear to historians, with narratives ranging from introduction through political marriage to it first being introduced as a medicine (Coe, 152). What we do know is that its ultimate rise in popularity among the French elite was due to marriage. Maria Teresa of Spain was married to Louis XIV of France in 1660. At first Maria Teresa kept her chocolate consumption secret, as it was not publically appropriate for women to drink chocolate in public (Coe, 154). In 1684, her physician, Joseph Bachot of Paris, wrote on the healing effects of chocolate and this is when we begin to see more frequent appearance of chocolate in the French court. Louis XIV (though rumored to not be a fan of chocolate) hired his own physician/chocolatier, Nicolas Blegny. After scientific testing, his work with chocolate led him to believe its health benefits included: “therapeutic virtues…good against coughs and stuffy chest, good for bilious colic, diarrhea, and dysentery…especially good against fevers and indigestion…even syphilis” (Albala, 68). As you may notice, this list is strikingly similar to that of the Aztec peoples. Below is an scan from Blegny’s book on the medicinal power of chocolate. It shows the way he would make chocolate paste. The fact that the physician to the King spent the time writing a book on the healing nature of cacao evidences how seriously chocolate was taken as a medicinal product in France at the time.
“Le Bon Usage du Thé, du Caffé et du Chocolat pour la Preservation & pour la Guérison des Maladies (The Proper Use of Tea, Coffee and Chocolate to Preserve Health and Cure Illnesses)”
The son of Louis XIV, Louis XV, was responsible for solidifying the presence of chocolate at Versailles. He had a deep love for chocolate beverage, to the extent where he frequently made it for himself. The King’s personal recipe for hot chocolate was even published:
“Place the same quantity of chocolate bars and glasses of water in a coffee maker and boil gently; when you are ready to serve, place one egg yolk for four servings and stir over a gentle heat but do not boil. If prepared the night before, those who drink it every day leave a leaven for the one they make the next day.” (“Les Soupers de la Cour ou l’Art de travailler toutes sortes d’aliments pour servir les meilleurs tables suivant les quatre saisons” (Court dinners or the Art of working different foods for the best restaurants based on the four seasons), by Menon, 1755, volume IV, p.331)
The King’s preference made chocolate a staple at the palace, served to guests of Versailles and all members of the court. In the image below, you see Princess de Lamballe, a favorite of the court, enjoying chocolate with her family at Versailles. As you can see, the focus of the painting is the drinking of chocolate. That the family chose to be immortalized in this image drinking chocolate speaks to the status of the beverage at the time.
In French society, cacao was now a food of the elite. Following its rise in popularity, Louis XV and his wife Marie Antoinette maintained its status. By this time chocolate was so popular among the elite that Marie Antoinette arrived at Versailles with her own chocolate maker (en.chateauversailles.fr). The King and Queen both consumed hot chocolate for breakfast and during the day if they required it for medicinal reasons. Below is an image of Marie Antoinette’s personal chocolate set, displaying her French-style chocolate pot. The French chocolate pot was an elevation of the Spanish molinillo, a stick used to froth chocolate when twisted quickly between one’s hands. The French chocolate pot internalized this process via a closed pot with a wooden handle that would froth the drink inside (Coe, 157). Versailles adopting a ‘cleaner’ method to froth chocolate beverage matches the elite narrative of cacao’s early history in France.
Also, for fun and to show the close association of Marie Antoinette and chocolate in modern times is an article for the “Marie Antoinette Diet”, in which it says “the premise of this diet is that you can (and should) eat like Marie Antoinette, who treated herself to cake and hot chocolate for breakfast”.
While it can be argued that cultures such as the Maya and the English had a more communal approach to chocolate, it was a food of the elite in the French and ancient Aztec cultures. Though cacao went through hybridization across these two cultures, particularly in matters of taste, it is interesting to consider the similarities of its elite status and medicinal benefits. The highly strict Aztec aristocracy had the power to restrict chocolate consumption to the upper echelon. On the other hand, the elitism of cacao in French society can probably be contributed to it becoming ‘fashionable’ at Versailles, as well as the cost, due to it being a relatively new, foreign import.
Albala, Ken. The Use and Abuse of Chocolate in 17th Century Medical Theory. Food &
Foodways: History & Culture of Human Nourishment. Jan-Jun2007, Vol. 15
Issue 1/2, p53-74. 22p.
Coe, Sophie D. The true history of chocolate. (2007)
Wilson, Philip. Chocolate as Medicine: A Quest Over the Centuries. 2012