Sex, addiction and the earliest ice recipe: 17th century journal reveals history of chocolate

By Culture24 Reporter | 28 March 2014

Is chocolate an aphrodisiac or a health hazard? A 350-year-old ice-cream recipe could have been both

A photo of a man in georgian cookery clothing inside a kitchen
British history has occasionally treated chocolate with suspicion© Royal Palaces / Richard Lea Hair
When Dr Kate Loveman was looking into Samuel Pepys’ papers as part of research on the 17th century, she found volumes on his patron, Edward Montagu, who was the 1st Earl of Sandwich.

Within his journal, a 30-page section was devoted to chocolate – a “slightly odd thing”, says Loveman, which she decided to pursue in order to deduce “how unusual it actually was”.

A photo of a man in georgian clothing cooking in a kitchen with chocolate
Samuel Pepys' writing led to some delicious discoveries at the University of Leicester© Royal Palaces / Richard Lea Hair
“It includes quite stern warnings about the dangers of chocolate – that chocolate is a drug, as far as people in the 17th century are concerned, so you have to be very careful about how you use it,” she warns.

“It might damage your health. So they’re talking about how it’s dangerous, but they’re also talking about – particularly when they’re satirising chocolate eaters – how it’s connected with sexuality.

“The idea that chocolate can help you conceive or the idea that it’s an aphrodisiac which women who feel that they lack the attention of their husbands should be persuading their husbands to eat, that comes through quite strongly in some aspects.”

Loveman has contributed a 350-year-old recipe for iced chocolate treats, collected by the Earl a century before his great, great grandson is said to have invented the sandwich, to the reopened Georgian chocolate kitchen at Hampton Court Palace.

Its directions speak of preparing the “chocolatti” before putting the “vessel” into a carafe of snow and salt, shaking the concoction to produce “tender curled ice”. Cooks are subsequently advised to “eate it with spoons”, which the Earl would almost certainly have done after becoming a chocolate fan during his tenure as the ambassador extraordinary to Spain during the 1660s.

A photo of a man in georgian clothing cooking in a kitchen with chocolate
Historic Royal Palaces reopened the 300-year-old chocolate kitchen at Hampton Court earlier this year© Royal Palaces / Richard Lea Hair
"It’s not chocolate ice-cream, but more like a very solid and very dark version of the iced chocolate drinks you get in coffee shops today. Freezing food required cutting-edge technology in 17th century England, so these ices were seen as great luxuries.”

The delicacy was viewed as potentially perilous.

“People worried that iced chocolate in particular was ‘unwholesome’ and could damage the stomach, heart, and lungs. But there were ways round this.

“Sandwich thought the best way to ward off the dangers of eating frozen chocolate was to ‘Drinke Hott chocolatti ¼ of an houre after’ it.

“I tried out the freezing method using snow and lived to tell the tale, despite not following Sandwich’s advice.

“In the 1660s, when the Earl of Sandwich collected his recipes, chocolate often came with advice about safe consumption.

“One physician cautioned that the ingredients in hot chocolate could cause insomnia, excess mucus, or haemorrhoids.

“The novice chocolate drinker of the 1650s and 1660s ran greater risks than money ill spent: he had to bear in mind that the new product might damage his health and there was the real possibility of loss of face through having his inexperience exposed.”

The sexual connotations of chocolate remain surprisingly unchanged since the first adverts for exotic drinks made from cacao beans in 1640.

“It’s not too different from the way that sometimes chocolate is sold today,” believes Loveman.

“If you think about adverts for Flakes or Magnums, chocolate is something that’s quite strongly associated with sexuality, albeit in a different way.

“Today’s chocolate promoters, like some in the 17th century, often find cause to highlight women, pleasure, and sexuality.

“In the 17th century, however, the fact that frequent chocolate consumption might make you ‘fat and corpulent’ was an attraction – something advertisers now prefer to keep quiet about.”

King Charles II’s own prized recipe, for spiced and perfumed chocolate, cost the ruler £200, according to the manuscripts.

Pepys tried chocolate to cure his hangover after the monarch’s coronation, recording some success, while in 1652 Captain James Wadsworth claimed that chocolate was “thirsted after by people of all Degrees (especially those of the Female sex) either for the Pleasure therein Naturally Residing, to Cure, and divert Diseases; Or else to supply some Defects of Nature.”

Chocolate sellers became common around London during the 1650s, selling a milky version of the drink in coffee houses. By the 1690s, chocolate houses were selling the sweet beverage to an “aristocratic clientele”.

“The 17th century is this amazingly active period,” says Loveman.

“When I started working on Samuel Pepys I never thought that I’d be finding out about chocolate.”

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

A close-up photo of a chocolate pastry tart surrounded by bowls on a kitchen table
© Royal Palaces / Richard Lea Hair
A photo of round pieces of chocolate on a wooden kitchen table
© Royal Palaces / Richard Lea Hair
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Vanilla has a contemporary meaning; possibly chocolate had a rather different one in the seventeenth century.
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