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  • Writer's pictureJulia Warren

From Chocolate Houses to Victorian Delights: A Journey through the Rich History of Chocolate


François Boucher, Le Dejeuner, 1739


Introduction


Chocolate, with its velvety texture and indulgent flavors, has captivated the hearts of people for centuries. Its history is intertwined with tales of ancient civilizations, European explorers, and the birth of iconic chocolate companies.


The Ancient Origins

The story of chocolate begins in Mesoamerica, where the ancient Mayans and Aztecs revered cacao as a sacred gift from the gods. Consumed in its original form, a bitter beverage, it held religious, cultural, and even economic importance. The frothy, invigorating concoction made from crushed cacao beans was reserved for nobility and special occasions.


European Encounters and the Chocolate House Culture

In the 16th century, European explorers like Christopher Columbus and Hernán Cortés encountered cacao during their voyages. At first, chocolate was met with little favour owing to its bitter taste, but once sugar and vanilla was added it soon gained popularity. In the 18th century, London saw the rise of chocolate houses, where customers drank, talked politics,gossiped and gambled. The first chocolate house in London was opened in 1657 by a Frenchman, and more sprang up, and further afield, in Bristol and Bath. Famous chocolate houses like White's and Slaughter's drew in the wealthy and influential, cementing chocolate's place in society.


"Shock just had giv’n himself the rousing shake, And nymphs prepared their Chocolate to take; Thrice the wrought slipper knocked against the ground, And striking watches the tenth hour resound."

(from Rape of the Lock by Alexander Pope)




Its popularity and expense made it a status symbol; some considered it medicinal - others saw it as exotic and decadent. Satirists found ample material to draw on: Congreve set his play ‘The Way of the World’ in a chocolate house; in the final act, when the lovers Mirabel and Millamant barter and negotiate their wedding contract, Mirabel says:


Raimundo de Madrazo y Garreta, Hot Chocolate

‘[You are to] restrain yourself to native and simple tea-table drinks, as tea, chocolate, and coffee. As likewise to genuine and authorised tea-table talk, such as mending of fashions, spoiling reputations, railing at absent friends, and so forth….’

The Industrial Revolution and Chocolate's Transformation

The 19th century brought about significant advancements in chocolate production. The Industrial Revolution played a pivotal role in transforming chocolate from a beverage to a solid confectionery delight. Innovators like Joseph Fry and John Cadbury experimented with new techniques, such as adding cocoa butter back into the mix, resulting in the creation of the first-ever chocolate bars. The ability to produce chocolate on a larger scale made it accessible to a wider audience, marking a turning point in its history.



Victorian Era: Chocolate Companies Take the Stage

The Victorian era witnessed a surge in the establishment of chocolate companies that remain iconic to this day. Companies like Cadbury, Fry's, and Rowntree's emerged, revolutionizing the chocolate industry. They prioritized quality, innovation, and ethical practices, propelling chocolate into the forefront of British society. These companies not only catered to the elite but also focused on producing affordable chocolates for the growing middle class.



‘Now, in the ordinary course of things, and according to all authentic descriptions of high life, as set forth in books, Mrs. Wititterly ought to have been in her boudoir; but whether it was that Mr. Wititterly was at that moment shaving himself in the boudoir or what not, certain it is that Mrs. Wititterly gave audience in the drawing-room, where was everything proper and necessary, including curtains and furniture coverings of a roseate hue, to shed a delicate bloom on Mrs. Wititterly’s complexion, and a little dog to snap at strangers’ legs for Mrs. Wititterly’s amusement, and the afore-mentioned page, to hand chocolate for Mrs. Wititterly’s refreshment.’

( from Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens)


Confections and Treats: Victorian Chocolate Delights

Victorian chocolate companies introduced a plethora of confections and treats, expanding the range of chocolate's delectable possibilities. From the first milk chocolate bars to fruit-filled bonbons and chocolate-covered nuts, the Victorian era marked a time of experimentation and decadence. Chocolatiers became revered artisans, pushing the boundaries of creativity and craftsmanship.

Jean Bérard, La Pâtisserie Gloppe au Champs-Élysées



Conclusion

The journey of chocolate through history is a testament to its enduring appeal and ability to adapt to changing times. From the sacred beverage of ancient civilizations to the refined delicacies of Victorian Britain, chocolate culture has created a legacy that continues to delight us today. So, the next time you savor a piece of chocolate, remember the rich history that led to its creation and the passionate individuals who shaped its evolution.


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