Yesterday, Izzi drew my attention to a chocolate festival on the South Bank this weekend. As Christmas is approaching, we believed that we could probably find some suitable presents there. Therefore, in a spirit of pure and almost saintly altruism, we went to a place with heinous amounts of luxury chocolate.
Just about every variant on the sinful bean was present at this event, which was held behind the Royal Festival Hall. Chocolate bars, chocolate cakes, hot chocolate, brownies, fudge, shortbread, lollipops, churros, chilli – even elaborate sculptures. And there were luxury chocolatiers, fair trade vendors, preachers of the gospel of the organic (although if your chocolate contains organs then something has gone badly wrong), right down to the small-scale snack sellers. In short, it was a hair shirt for the dieter. Actually, we were quite good – I personally limited myself to a cup of chilli hot chocolate and a Belgian chocolate tart. Plus some free samples, which of course do not count.
Chocolate has a long and ancient history in the Americas. While the Romans were conquering Britain, the people of Central and South America had been partaking for a thousand years. Under the Aztecs, cocoa beans were used as currency, while the drink itself (the solid form being unknown at the time) was a luxury beverage, enjoyed by the most high in society. It was used for medicinal and ceremonial purposes, particularly religious rituals – I’ve even come across the suggestion that it was mixed with the blood of sacrificial victims, though I suspect the author was using a little dramatic licence. At that time, it was mixed with chilli, a flavouring that has only recently come into fashion in Europe.
Indeed, in the 16th century, when it was first brought to Europe by the Spanish, it was not immediately popular. Chocolate was considered too bitter and spicy for most, and so did not become popular until chilli was removed from the recipe and milk and sugar added. In this form, it became a hit among the smart set. Casanova would later complain that “the Spanish offer visitors chocolate so frequently at all hours that if one accepted, one would be choked.”
Mr Casanova’s fellow countrymen disagreed, and Italy enthusiastically took up drinking chocolate. So too did Germany and Switzerland, both noted for their enthusiasm for the stuff to this day.
It came to Britain in the 1650s, and strangely became associated with radical politics – chocolate houses, i.e, shops where drinking chocolate was sold, were popular meeting places. Indeed, they were the direct and immediate ancestors of the coffee houses which, as I have previously described within these pages, were basically the foundation of modern London. Sir Hans Sloane, pictured left, introduced a supposedly medicinal form of the drink in 1689. He also invented the British Museum or something.
Of course, the moral guardians of the nation were quick to point out how evil chocolate must be. I think the normal train of thought among such killjoys is to condemn whatever it is that people are enjoying at the moment and then to figure out what’s wrong with it. One Dr Daniel Duncan cautioned in 1712 that drinking of hot beverages like chocolate would damage the delicate tissue of the stomach, and that sugar rendered such drinks “poison.” Pamphlets were even published warning that excessive consumption of the drink would lead to women giving birth to “blackamoor” babies – this rather nutty idea seems to have originated with Madame de Sevigne of Paris, who wrote that the Marquise de Coetlogon had experienced this side effect personally. Not being a cynic, it hasn’t even crossed my mind to say “or at least, that was her story.”
King Charles II, despite being one of the pimpingest monarchs in the history of Britain, wanted to see chocolate (and coffee) banned, mostly for the aforementioned association with radical politics. The Church, too, was strongly against this joyous substance, condemning it as “the damnable agent of necromancers and sorcerors,” which I think is perhaps going a bit far.
That being said, it can’t be denied that there is a strong association between chocolate and sin. Chocolate, particularly the high-end luxury stuff, is invariably marketed as something sexual, as the unsubtle advert on the left shows. In 1772, the Marquis de Sade was imprisoned after spiking chocolate pastilles at a party with Spanish fly, resulting in a riotous orgy. The old perv also once requested a chocolate cake “as black inside from chocolate as the Devil’s arse is black from smoke.”
In the 19th century, it lost some of its lustre in Britain, perhaps in part due to the adulteration of chocolate powder with potato starch, brick dust or whatever else was to hand (see the link below for more details of his practice). Indeed, it became positively respectable, and by the 1850s the Moral Guardians had decided that actually, chocolate was okay because it wasn’t alcohol. At around this time, solid “eating” chocolate became available, and a reduction in the duties levied on cocoa made it affordable to all.
Now, of course, it’s enjoyed by everyone. Well, actually, that’s a lie – in Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana, where 80% of the world’s cocoa originates, the cheapest way to get those beans harvested is by the use of child slavery. Despite the best efforts of campaigners, the position remains grim – in part, because the process of selling cocoa beans is so complex that by the time they get to the factory, it’s difficult to tell where your beans actually came from. US Congressman Eliot Engel proposed in 2001 that a new labelling system be introduced whereby chocolate that could be proven untainted by forced labour would be entitled to the label “slave free.” Perhaps predictably, the chocolate manufacturers resisted this. If some chocolate is labelled “slave free,” that rather implies that the rest is not, which is not exactly in line with the luxury marketing. It’s enough to put you off your Snickers.
https://londonparticulars.wordpress.com/2010/09/26/adultery-at-the-produce-counter/ – Food adulteration for beginners.
https://londonparticulars.wordpress.com/2010/03/24/coffee-society/ – The coffee houses and their role in the shaping of Our Fair Metropolis.