Andrea here, As most of you know, I love doing research. For me it’s endlessly interesting—and at times exciting, especially when I discover something new about something I’ve delved into before. (That’s truly one of the pleasures of history—the more you think you know, the more you find hidden surprises!)
And given the season, this sweet discovery is particularly fun. Chocolate and the holidays—really, how perfect is that! The royal palaces of London are some of my favorite places, and I happened to be doing some additional research on Kensington Palace and Kew Palaces for the Wrexford & Sloane mystery I’m currently writing . . .when lo and behold, a tantalizing little sidebar popped up regarding Hampton Court Palace. Given that it involved chocolate, how could I resist! So join me in enjoying this little nibble of history.
Documents had mentioned the existence of a chocolate kitchen in Hampton Court Palace dating from the late 1600s, but until 2013, its location was a mystery. A clever curator found an 18th century inventory of the palace and was able to pinpoint the location—it was currently being used as a flower store for the palace visitors. However, many of the original fittings were uncovered, and today the kitchen has been restored and is open to the public. (There is a lovely feature on it at the palace website.)
According to the Hampton Court Palace records, the chocolate kitchens were designed by Sir Christopher Wren in the 1690s as part of the palace renovations initiated by William and Mary on their accession to the throne. Both the king and queen were said to be very fond of the the new—and expensive—drink, which had just come into vogue in Europe, having been brought from the New World by Spain. William was apparently especially partial to chocolate, and drank it throughout the day.
Chocolate remained a fixture at the palace when George I came to the throne. He hired Thomas Tosier—who ran a chocolate house on “Chocolate Row” in Greenwich with his wife—as his chocolate maker in 1717. A fascinating aside to this is that his wife Grace continued to run the business in Greenwich while her husband served the king at the palace. It became a hugely popular place (she added a great room for dancing in 1721) and was often mentioned in the society columns. Grace became a celebrity in her own right and was featured in many popular prints of the time. She apparently dressed in eye-catching fashions, and was was said to favor a “large brimmed hat” and “flowers in her bosom.”
Preparing chocolate for consumption was a long and complicated process, all of it done in the kitchens. The cacao beans were roasted, and then ground into a paste, which was then formed into flattened cakes and left to age for several months.
The cakes were then dissolved in a hot liquid—water was used at first. Milk didn’t come into vogue until later—and spiced with flavorings like cinnamon. Hot chilies were very popular because that was what was used in Aztec culture, from which the Spanish learned about the delights of chocolate. Hot chocolate wasn’t sweetened until later, though as of yet, I’ve not come across a date when that began.)
Once the chocolate was prepared, it was taken to a special chocolate room where the special chocolate pots—often crafted of expensive silver and porcelain—were kept. Chocolate pots were a special design—Tall and narrow with a long wooden handle for pouring, they also had a hole in the lid for the handle of a mollinaro, which was a whisk to froth the chocolate. If you look closely at paintings and prints of the era, you can see chocolate pots, which looked different from tea and coffee pots.
So that’s a peek into another sweet slice of chocolate history! I love both the lore and the taste of chocolate. How about you? Is chocolate a big part of your holiday treats? Or you do have another favorite sweet that is traditional in your family? Marzipan is also big in my family, as there are all sorts of Swiss cookies and pastries that my mother always made for our family festivities.