I’ve been thinking a lot about chocolate recently. And not just because I’ve been suffering from gum infections that have me eyeing up the chocolate box wondering if I could whizz up its nutritious contents into a milk shake. Oliver Thring, who writes for the Guardian’s Word of Mouth blog http://bit.ly/qFYdE7 asked me what sort of chocolate recipes there were in Great Food, so I’ve been having a rummage through the sweetie drawer.
Chocolate, I’ve discovered, has had quite an image makeover since it was introduced – as a drink – to England in 1657. We take for granted the association between a bar of even the yuckiest vegetable-fat laden chunks with lusciousness and sensuality. If we think about our ancestors’ culinary enjoyment at all, we might imagine a Black-magic box-shaped hole in the centre of it, as they valiantly got their sweet kicks from candied rose petals or caraway comfits.
But for Pepys, a keen pursuer of sensuous gratification, this new drink was simply healthy and comforting. When he “waked in the morning with my head in a sad taking through the last night’s drink” on 24th April 1661, his friend gave him his morning draught in chocolate to settle his stomach (The Joys of Excess, p16). Brillat-Savarin, in 1825, promises that drinking chocolate in the morning leads to unfailing health and mitigates against that undesirable condition – losing weight. He interrupts his civilized history of chocolate with the extravagant claim that Spanish ladies of the New World love chocolate to the point of madness, but he certainly doesn’t see this “sensual indulgence” around him in France where, unlike coffee, chocolate “holds no terrors for the fair sex” (The Pleasures of the Table, p59).
Chocolate was first sold in solid form (by Cadbury’s and Fry’s) in the 1840s and it was quickly taken up at fancy dinner parties (Mrs Beeton has it served in an ornamental box on a glass plate). It was probably democratized when chocolate bars were given to soldiers in the First World War (but Shaw’s chocolate cream soldier of 1894 suggests the Swiss already had their own privatized version of chocolate rations). Alexis Soyer includes, in his instructions for cooking for regiments of soldiers, a recipe for cocoa for 80 men (The Chef at War, p101). He makes it with water thickened with arrowroot to give the sort of thick, chocolatey drink you get Italy rather than the chocolate milk we drink now. Similarly, Alice B. Toklas also gives a recipe for hot chocolate, served in bowls to comfort soldiers by the Red Cross Nuns in wartime France.
In the 1920s the high-society Agnes Jekyll describes cocoa nibs (A Little Dinner Before the Play, p51) as having a welcome ‘clean wholesomeness’ and recommends her super-chocolate cake (p23) for guests of robust appetites. (I make this for my talk – it has some unusual ingredients beside chocolate.) Nor does Alice B. Toklas rhapsodise about it; she passes on the recipe for sacher torte from her Austrian cook (Murder in the Kitchen, p18) but she is more interested in his love life than the cake’s chocolatiness. The Macon Cake - the luscious thing that transports her into ecstasies (p58) has mocha, pistachio and kirsch butter cream but chocolate is conspicuous by its absence.
But somehow, between then and now, chocolate acquired its reputation for sensuousness. Depending on who you read, we should thank the scientists who chopped it up and discovered the euphoric, falling-in-love chemical phenylethylamine; or the Aztec women who introduced it to the Conquistadores, or the hedonists who love the way it melts at blood heat on the tongue. The usual culprit for these things, Nigella Lawson, in How to Be A Domestic Goddess, says she doesn’t even particularly like chocolate. Personally I think it’s got something to do with the girl in those Flake adverts from the 80s.