Skip to main content

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.
(Wikimedia Commons, use licensed under Creative Commons CC-BY-SA-2.5)

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) - 
a mid-18th century painting 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.  

In this 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?

An 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!


  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


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

The end of the Holy Roman Empire, or what happens when the Empire doesn't strike back

This is the way the world ends Not with a bang  but a whimper T.S. Eliot wasn't actually describing the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire when he wrote those words in his poem, “The Hollow Men.” Nonetheless, his words are an extremely apt way to describe the end of the Holy Roman Empire, which ended quietly with a stroke of a pen exactly 212 years ago in August of 1806. That’s when the last emperor decided it was his duty to abdicate, letting the ancient dominion under his protection dissolve rather than allow Napoleon to usurp the role of Holy Roman Emperor and everything that came with it. Francis II, the last Holy Roman Emperor By that August the end of the empire had become inevitable. Napoleon’s victory over Russia and Austria at the Battle of Austerlitz in December of 1805 and his formation of the Confederation of the Rhine the following July (after he convinced 16 German princes to renounce their allegiance to the Holy Roman Empire and join him)

Macaroni Men and Yankee Doodles

The Spirit of '76  (original title Yankee Doodle ) by Archibald Willard, painted in the late 1800s November is a month that here in the United States is defined by food, culminating in a huge Thanksgiving Day feast. It's also the month we honor our military veterans. So I'm going to focus on both food and patriotism - especially an Italian pasta product that became synonymous with a controversial English fashion and developed uniquely American associations. "The Macaroni"- 1773 During the 18th century, it was all the rage for young men of the English nobility to take a trip through Europe to soak up its art and culture. It was called the Grand Tour. In Italy, these privileged lads discovered a pasta dish far removed from their usual British fare. It was called maccaroni , and they raved about it when they got back home. The travelers became known as the Macaroni Club, though there is no evidence an actual club ever existed. But it

The Cato Street Conspiracy

The Cato Street conspirators getting arrested Conspiracy and treason go hand in hand. Throughout history, conspirators have huddled in back rooms and dark corners in secret, concocting schemes that are both dangerous and illegal. So it’s no surprise that their plans often spiral out of control and end in disaster.  A good example of a conspiracy plot gone wrong happened during the Regency. It’s been dubbed the Cato Street Conspiracy because of where the conspirators were caught. This is a tale that, according to historian J.B. Priestley (author of The Prince of Pleasure and his Regency) “begins in absurdity and ends in horror.” The year was 1820. Though the Napoleonic Wars were over, Britain had paid a heavy price for its victory against the French. The costs of the war had strained the country’s economy. The working classes were hit hard by periods of famine, rising food prices due to the Corn Laws, and high unemployment, the latter driven by soldiers returning from th