The British love affair with chocolate began in London in 1657, when a Frenchman opened the countryâ€™s first chocolate house in Bishopsgate Street in Queenâ€™s Head Alley, advertising â€˜this excellent West India drinkâ€™. Within a few years, more chocolate houses sprang up to rival the coffee houses that had been in the city since 1650. Early versions of the drink included mixing dried powdered cocoa nibs with hot red wine and/or egg yolks sweetened with sugar. Sometimes sherry or port replaced the wine and the drink was often fortified with a dash of brandy. Later on the drink was made with hot water.
The chocolate houses offered gambling, food and entertainment, but above all, gossip and talk, particularly of business and politics. The most famous chocolate house was Whiteâ€™s, opened by Francis White around 1693, which was recommended in newspapers of the time (including the first issue of The Tatler in 1709) as one of the best amusements in London. Samuel Pepys drank chocolate for the first time in 1662 and must have enjoyed it because his Diary mentions more visits to chocolate houses and he writes several times of â€˜ my morning draft of chocollatteâ€™. The Cocoa â€“Tree, another popular select establishment (although never as fashionable as Whiteâ€™s) became the haunt of Tory politicians and by 1746 had become the semi-official headquarters of the Jacobite party.
Sir Hans Sloane (of Square fame) personal physician to Queen Anne, is credited with using milk instead of water around 1700 to make chocolate, which improved it greatly. However chocolateâ€™s popularity was gradually superseded by the newly fashionable tea and towards the end of the 18th century London’s smartest chocolate houses became private clubs whose membership was strictly limited to high society gentlemen – their revenue now coming from the affluent members rather than the general public. Whiteâ€™s retained its name while The Cocoa-Tree became Garrickâ€™s.
A major turning point for the cocoa and chocolate industry occurred in 1847, when Fry’s of England sold the first solid edible chocolate bar. This was followed in the 1850’s by the reduction of taxes on imported cocoa beans by Prime Minister William Gladstone, but chocolate still remained a luxury; Mrs. Beeton in her famous cookery book instructed that chocolate should be served in an ornamental box placed on a glass plate as part of the dessert. Soon though the price of chocolate fell and was more affordable and became within the reach of a wider section of the population.
Solid chocolate reached an even wider audience when it was issued to troops in the First World War as part of their rations. The King and Queen issued a tin of chocolates to the fighting men as a Christmas gift. After the war chocolate manufacture increased to meet the growing demand and many specialist sweet shops sprang up to meet the needs of consumers.Â Sadly many old firms have long since disappeared but there remain two established London chocolate makers still renowned today for their excellent chocolates: Charbonnel et Walker of Bond Street which was started in 1875by Madame Charbonnel, mistress of the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) and Bendicks of Mayfair which was started by a Mr. Benson and a Colonel Dickson in 1930, who got together to form a chocolate and pastry confectioners based in Kensington.Â Business was brisk so they soon opened several more shops, including one in Mayfair to meet the growing demand.
It seems we just canâ€™t get enough of chocolate â€“ consumption in Britain now stands at around 9 kg per head – but it is good for us! Good quality chocolate provides a quick source of energy and contains useful amounts of protein and iron, plus the stimulants theobromine and (a little) caffeine. The celebrated gastronome Brillat-Savarin (1755-1826) summed up the benefits of chocolate perfectly:
It has been shown as proof positive that carefully prepared chocolate is as healthful
a food as it is pleasant; that it is nourishing and easily digested…
that it is above all helpful to people who must do a great deal of mental work.
Carol Wilson has been writing for Epicurus.com as our British correspondent and editor since 1997 when she joined our new and growing team shortly after the site was founded. She is a food/cookery writer, cookery consultant, a member of the Guild of Food Writers and restaurant inspector. Carol contributes to a wide variety of publications and websites in the UK, Ireland and USA, e.g. The Illustrated London News, Food and Wine, Gastronomica and of course, Epicurus.com. She has appeared on Swiss/German television discussing British cooking. Always impeccable with her writing, Carol tests recipes for consumer magazines and food companies and also styles food for photography. She is particularly interested in regional recipes and culinary traditions throughout the world and has written various series on traditional cooking for several magazines. An enthusiastic supporter of small traditional food producers, she is a Jury member for the Slow Food Awards.
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