The Cup Half Full: 18th Century Chocolate

There’s so much you can blame on Outlander. For example, my new obsession with hot chocolate.  Had I never found Outlander I would never have found Outlander Kitchen and her interpretation of Hot Chocolate.

You’d think, as a denizen of northern New England, I’d have grown up on hot chocolate, and you’d be right.  A day of skiing was always capped off with a cup of hot cocoa, a powdered product reconstituted in boiling water or hot milk.  Since I live in Vermont we don’t use the stuff you find on your grocery store shelves, oh no, we’re privileged here. I can choose from Lake Champlain Chocolates, Silly Cow (which has great packaging) or Vermont Farm Girl.. which makes creative use of traditional tins.

You’d also think, consuming this stuff by the pint, we’d all be quite pudgy by the time we hit the ripe old age of ten.

But with a clarity born of dragging children off the ski slope as an adult I now know why outdoor winter play is capped off with hot cocoa: it keeps children from disintegrating into puddles of tired tears before they’re out of their wet clothes and seated at the dinner table.  No child that has spent six hours playing outside in twenty degree weather has ever ruined their dinner with a mug of hot chocolate.  You could throw a dozen cookies on top of that chocolate and they’d still manage that full serving of whatever you heap on their plates, provided they can stay awake long enough to shovel it in.

Imagine my surprise to discover, thanks to this Unfortunate Outlander Obsession, that I have not been drinking “hot chocolate” all these years, but “cocoa.”  While hot chocolate and hot cocoa are often used interchangeably, they’re not actually the same thing.

Hot chocolate, as Claire would have had it in 18th century France, was made from cacao nibs, the  fermented, dried, and roasted seeds (cocoa beans) that grow in pods on the bark of the tropical Theobroma cacao tree. The nibs are crushed into a thick paste, called chocolate liquor, made up of cocoa solids and cocoa butter.  The Aztec drank this in hot water, bitter.  The Europeans added cream and sugar to create a positively sinful liquid chocolate.  It was Carolus Linnaeus—the father of modern-day taxonomic plant classification–who dubbed the tree that provides chocolate Theobroma cacao: Tree of Life, in his Systema Naturae in the mid-1700.. and anyone drinking true hot chocolate can not disagree with him.

So where do we get “cocoa?” 1828 a Dutch chemist Coenraad Johannes van Houten invented a process that could remove most of the cocoa butter from the chocolate liquor, leaving a dry cake that could be crushed into a powder.  The result is “Dutch cocoa.” To make a bar of chocolate, cocoa butter, or, in cheaper chocolates, wax extenders, along with milk, sugar, and flavor, are added back into the cocoa powder.  To make a hot beverage.. add hot milk and sugar to taste.  Modern refinements of tinned hot cocoa include adding powdered milk.. so to keep a kid fortified all you need to do is add boiling water, and a marshmallow.

But that’s not very 18th century.

Cooper Hewitt Collection, c. 1780-90 18th century advertisingMind you.. where you were in society in the early 18th century determined your exposure to this lovely thing called “drinking chocolate.” While chocolate spread quickly throughout Europe after it was brought to Spain by 17th century conquistadors it remained more expensive than coffee, a drink of the elites, and was seen as “southern,” “Catholic” and “aristocratic,” in contrast to coffee which was viewed as a Protestant middle class beverage favored by the north.  This lovely French engraving from the late 18th century shows a selection of chocolate cups embellished with different designs, motifs which are repeated in textiles, furniture, and other porcelain of the period.

Thank goodness my ancestors are at least French and Catholic… if not aristocratic.

But by the Revolutionary War chocolate was the breakfast beverage of choice, and members of the Continental army were given an allotment of chocolate according to rank: colonels and chaplains received four pounds of chocolate, majors and captains three pounds, lieutenants two pounds, and so on. Since the Revolutionary War predates the process for making cocoa powder the chocolate ration was created by squeezing prepared cacao nibs into a cake to make it transportable. Soldiers would shave pieces of the cake off into a pot of boiling water, the resulting bitter drink was considered rejuvenating, and much of the chocolate available went to hospitals to help the sick and wounded get their strength back.

Today a local chocolate shop offers hot chocolate on site, and will happily sell you little disks of chocolate so you can make it at home.  12 little disks of 71% cocoa whisked into 1/2 C of hot whole milk produces almost a coffee cup of liquid decadence…

halfacupofmilkAnd a complete change of perspective. This is half a cup of milk.  In a measuring cup you barely think about what “half a cup of milk” means.


This is what half a cup of milk looks like in a Spode Camilla Blue teacup.


And this is what a cup of milk looks like in that same teacup.


For perspective, this is my usual mug for coffee.. which, evidently, holds 2 cups of liquid.

My husband is not as enthralled by the 18th century as I am. He sees history as pungent and poor, certainly not something to be reproduced in one’s kitchen for personal amusement. Not that he isn’t going to find the 18th century version of hot chocolate a major improvement over even a gourmet Vermont hot cocoa, but he’s going to find the portion size of half a cup a poor substitute for a modern two cup, one pint, serving of cocoa.

chocolate11And yet I am enchanted with my half cup of chocolate. It is both enough to be silkily satisfying, and not enough, leaving you looking wistfully into the bottom of the cup.  The great achievement of the 18th century’s consumer revolution is in its logical consequences:  putting what was once the prerogative of the very wealthy into the hands of almost everyone, and in unheard of quantities. Not half a cup of hot chocolate, but three times that.. a full pint.. to make a serving.

It is said that deficit spending steals wealth from our children.  But our achievements also steal from them.  The 18th century’s greatest achievement.. the consumer culture which began with tall ships bearing spice and silk, chocolate and coffee, has provided us with enormous material wealth.. at the expense of joy.  The cup is not half full of riches anymore, it is half empty.

Which is why I step back into the 18th century, to once again revel in a cup half full.



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