10th
Jun
2015

Posted in

Last week when we looked at how tea made its way to Britain, we mentioned an avid plant collector named Hans Sloane. Alongside his enthusiam for botany, he also (inadvertently) played an important role in popularising chocolate in Britain, with a certain dairy twist.

The explorer Christopher Columbus is typically credited as the first European to discover cacao beans. During his fourth voyage from 1502-1504 he encountered a group of American sailors on a boat filled with odd little brown beans. Whilst he brought some back with him, they were seen as little more than a curio. It was Cortés who is credited with convincing King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain of their value in 1529, having discovered their worth after a stay with (and conquering) the Aztecs.

Back then, chocolate was a drink rather than anything solid. Successive Central and South American civilizations had used cacao beans to make bitter but invigorating drinks. When Spanish settlers encountered it, they added sugar to make the drink more palatable. It was this sweetened version that Cortés introduced to Spain, and it quickly became very popular- amongst those who could afford it, of course.

The Spanish guarded their wonderful new drink very closely. For almost a century, they managed to keep it under wraps, all the while improving on the original drink. They added spices like cinnamon and came up with the idea of heating it. Meanwhile back across the Atlantic, they began planting cacao trees in many of their colonies to feed the growing demand in Spain. Quite how the secret of chocolate eventually got out isn't known for sure. A common explanation is that is was the monks working in a new cacao processing factory who let the cat out of the bag. The news about chocolate then spread quickly through western Europe in the middle of the 17th century.

Chocolate appears to have been introduced to England by a Frenchman who came to London in 1657 and opened a chocolate house in Queen's Head Alley. In its early days chocolate was hailed as something of a panacea and reports of its fantastical abilities were shown in pamphlets. No doubt some of the more outlandish claims were made by the folks who stood to gain from it!

Two years before chocolate found its way to London, an English expedition captured the island of Jamiaca. Its commanders, Robert Venables and William Penn, had failed to capture Santo Domingo and decided to try and capture Jamaica instead as they were fearful of what Oliver Cromwell would think of their failure. Though England's hold on the island was shaky as disease wracked the invasion force and Spain mounted attacks to regain it, the Treaty of Madrid in 1670 saw Jamaica ceded to the English.

Time now to return to Hans Sloane of the opening paragraph. He arrived on Jamaica in 1687 as a physician appointed to the Duke of Albemarle who was to become governor. Alongside his role as a physician, he also used his time to pursue his interest in natural history. One of the plants he came across there was theobroma cacao. When Sloane tried the drink he found it nauseating, but came up with the idea of using milk, resulting in a more palatable taste. When he returned to London, along with his botanical collection he also bought his new recipe which he would often recommend in his capacity as a doctor. As the popularity and accessibility of chocolate spread throughout the country in later years, his name became associated with milk chocolate and was used by many chocolate sellers- even Cadbury- to add an air of refinement to their product.

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