A Regency Valentine

Ah, Valentine’s Day, the time of year when a young girl’s fancy turns to . . . chocolate. (At least if that young girl is like me.) And if the girl in question is also obsessed with the Regency, she may be wondering if chocolate was around during the Regency.

The answer is yes and no. During the Regency you could drink a cup of chocolate, but it was a gloppy, spiced brew not very similar to the hot cocoa we drink today. And on St. Valentine's Day, a lucky Regency miss could hope for a love note from an admirer, but a box of chocolates was out of the question. 

Cacao beans. The Spanish explorers  thought they looked like almonds.

By the time of the Regency chocolate had been in Europe for several centuries. Derived from the fruit of the cacao tree, chocolate was consumed in what is now Mexico and Central America by the Mayan and the Aztecs as early as the 6th century, for religious and medicinal purposes. These native Americans took their chocolate cold and unsweetened (because they didn't have sugar) and considered it a health drink.

Spanish explorers brought chocolate to Europe in the 16th century. The Spaniards made their chocolate into a hot drink, adding sugar and spices like cinnamon and nutmeg to sweeten its essential bitterness. It's no surprise that sipping this delicious mixture caught on and became not only a fashionable custom but a very exclusive one as well, not doubt due to cost. At first only members of the Spanish nobility were allowed to drink chocolate.

La Belle Chocolatière (The Chocolate Girl) - 
by Jean-Étienne Liotard. 

But that didn't last long, and soon chocolate was widely available. Chocolate houses catering to wealthy customers who could afford the expensive brew became popular in London, especially in the 18th century. These establishments were only for males (no women allowed) and were often regarded as dens of iniquity, where decadence and debauchery reigned. Many an ancient fortune or estate was lost on the roll of the dice at these gambling hells.  

Scene from William Hogarth's 1732-1735 series The Rake's Progress.
Aristocrats gambling at White's Chocolate House are so focused on their
games they scarcely notice the room is on fire.

White’s Chocolate House in London was perhaps the best known chocolate house, and it still exists today as a gentlemen's club. Now it's just called White's, but membership is still restricted to males. (In 1981 Prince Charles held his bachelor party there before he married Diana Spencer.)

White’s was famous for its betting book, where club members would enter bets on all sorts of matters, both trivial (betting on the outcome of a sporting event) and serious (betting on how long someone was going to live). A bet written in White's book regarding the outcome of an engagement or a love affair is a major plot element in many a Regency romance.

A chocolate house like White's also served less costly brews such as coffee and tea, or cheaper still, something called saloop. Saloop was made out of sugar and brewed sassafras root. It had a slight kick, but nothing like the stimulants in the more caffeinated brews. 

For a while saloop was quite popular. But unfortunately for saloop-vendors, the brew lost favor when it became known as a cure for venereal diseases. After that, no one wanted to be seen drinking saloop in public, and who could blame them?

1820 caricature by Thomas Rowlandson
of a British soldier drinking saloop. 

An upper class Regency miss might drink chocolate in the morning with her breakfast. Her chocolate would be poured from a chocolate pot, though maybe not a pot as fancy as this one:

18th century silver pot for brewing chocolate,
from the Victoria and Albert Museum. It has
a hinged lid and a place to insert a swizzle stick.

And she might have a cup specially designed for her chocolate, perhaps even one like this:

A beautiful English Chantilly porcelain cup for drinking chocolate,
also from the 18th century.

It wasn't until 1828 that a method was developed to separate the greasy cacao butter from the seeds of the cacao fruit. This discovery was a product of the Industrial Revolution, and it resulted in a much better, purer cocoa powder that was ideal for mixing with milk to make hot cocoa. 

And this new process, which I think should go down as one of the great achievements of mankind, also made the creation of edible, solid chocolate possible, leading to the chocolate candy we all know and love today.

Love and chocolate - I think they make a great combination, for Valentine's Day or any day of the year!


Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

1 comment:

  1. Hi Maureen, Sorry it took me so long to see this. It has been a busy last few days, but I'm so glad I finally had time to read your post. This was really interesting. Every time I visit your blog, I learn something fascinating and have a blast at the same time! All of that chocolate talk has given me a big craving too. ;-) Hope you had a happy Valentine's Day! xo Jennifer


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