By Amanda E. Herbert
Last semester I taught a course on Tudor and Stuart Britain, and devoted one week to study of the Commercial Revolution. This “revolution” in taste and consumption occurred c. 1650-1750, as exotic goods from British colonies came up for sale in metropolitan British markets. From Edinburgh to Bristol, and from London to Dublin, early modern Britons began to purchase these “new world” products in great numbers, significantly changing British financial markets and British tastes. The students readily grasped the economic and logistical details of this historical shift, but I wanted them to understand that the Commercial Revolution also marked a sensory change for early modern Britons, whose senses of smell, taste, sight, and touch mediated their interactions with new goods. So I planned an experiment for the last day of the unit: the students would drink chocolate in class.
In early modern Europe, chocolate usually was consumed as a hot drink – Amy Tigner explored the many ways that early modern people ate and drank chocolate in her excellent Recipe Project posts on chocolate here and here – with crushed cacao nibs mixed with spices, hot water, and a bit of sugar. I wanted the students to try early modern chocolate, and (luckily for me) there’s a company that makes it. Starting in 2003, the Historic Division of MARS Chocolate North America began work on an eighteenth-century-style chocolate drink. Partnering with historical organizations such as the Colonial Chocolate Society, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Fort Ticonderoga, and the University of California, Davis, MARS created a chocolate blend which it believes is historically accurate. The mixture is available for sale, and I purchased a container for the class. After mixing the powder with hot water as directed, I poured each student a small cup and asked them to compose “tasting notes” on the drink, describing the flavors and asking them to identify what they thought was in the recipe.
Some of the students loved the chocolate. Several thought it contained coffee, reporting that it reminded them of their caffeinated drink of choice:
“The texture and thickness reminds me of Turkish coffee.”
“It’s like thicker coffee which is nice and soothing.”
Most of the students believed that the chocolate contained spices and fruit extracts. For many, the spicy and fruity flavors in the drink were evocative of banana:
“You can smell the different spices. It seems to have fruity tones.”
“It tastes like banana after a while…I don’t like banana.”
“It tastes like hot cocoa and apple cider had a baby. Kinda has a banana flavor.”
Many students commented on the fact that the drink was not very sweet. In trying to emulate eighteenth-century recipes, MARS included only a bit of sugar in their recipe.
“I wish it was sweeter.”
Most students found the texture and the thickness of the chocolate to be disconcerting. For these modern American students, chocolate was supposed to be smooth and sweet. They thought that the texture and flavor were off-putting, even revolting:
“It’s like warm liquid cough medicine.”
“I’m slightly disturbed that there are yellow oily stains inside of my cup.”
“It reminds me of vomit.”
After everyone had finished their chocolate (or discreetly tipped it into the trash) and turned in their tasting notes, we sat down and discussed the recipe. MARS doesn’t reveal the precise details online, but it does say that the chocolate contains ingredients commonly found in eighteenth-century recipes: anise, chili pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg, orange peel, and vanilla. One by one, I revealed the ingredients to the class, and then we mapped them onto an atlas, exploring where each ingredient originated in the early modern period, the shipping processes and time required to bring them to British markets, and how much they would have cost. Many of these ingredients would have seemed strange, and their tastes or textures unpleasant, to early modern Britons themselves. We finished the class by discussing how consuming fashionable products may not always have been a positive experience for people in eighteenth-century Britain — and sometimes even for those in twenty-first century America.
Many thanks to the students in “HIST 308: Tudor and Stuart Britain” (Fall 2013) at Christopher Newport University for their enthusiastic participation in this project, and for their permission to reproduce their tasting notes online.