ELLchocfest: The surprising history of chocolate and how it corrupted London’s most fashionable area

White's Chocolate House in 1708. Pic: Salvor

White’s Chocolate House in 1708. Pic: Salvor

Everyone loves chocolate, but do you really know where it came from, its journey to England and how it became one of the nations favourite sweet treats?

Eastlondonlines put these questions to bemused locals who were just as confused! But not to worry, we have all the answers from historian Dr Matthew Green below. 

The first newspaper adverts in the seventeenth century promoted a new and exotic chocolate drink, promising to cure hangovers and make drinkers sexier. Even though we know this isn’t true today, we’re still obsessed with it.

Chocolate was first sold in England in the east end of London, in Queen’s Head Alley in Bishopsgate Street by a Frenchman in 1657. The first shipment of cacao beans crossed the waters from the New World and arrived in Europe in 1585. It’s believed that it was introduced to Europe by the Grand Duke of Tuscany and the Spanish Conquistador Hernan Cortes. Every palace and mansion of baroque Europe was caught up in the craze – some even had their own chocolate kitchen and chef.

Chocolate, quickly infiltrated British shores and its immediate popularity in London led to a set of debauched, gluttonous chocolate houses; home to machiavellian plotting whilst customers sipped on flavoured chocolate drinks. These super elite chocolate houses appeared around the exclusive area of St James’ Square, and thrived there, attracting the top aristocrats of British society as it was more expensive than coffee.

London’s three top chocolate houses were White’s, which was known as “the most fashionable hell in London”, and Ozinda’s, both on St James’ Street, as well as the Cocoa Tree on Pall Mall, which opened in 1693. Inside, the houses were decadently decorated with dark wooden interiors and elegant furniture, complete with waiters, reminiscent of the Viennese coffee houses.

The Cocoa Tree was the informal home of the Tory party in the early eighteenth century, where polices were created over newspapers and cups of chocolate. White’s still exists today as an exclusive men’s club, with a ten-year male only waiting list; so don’t anticipate a visit any time soon.

The drink was marketed cleverly in London, as the adverts claimed the drink had benefits such as increasing fertility and easing indigestion. These assertions were accompanied by poetry, which boasted terrible rhyming schemes and dodgy couplets, as they described the benefits of chocolate.

The chocolate was drunk hot, sweet and with cinnamon.  Often citrus peel, jasmine, vanillas, musk and ambergris were added, leading to it being described as the “drink of gods” (a far cry from its original description of “drink of the pigs” before such tasty flavours were added).

Luckily, chocolate has moved away from its elitist liquid form and is now readily available to all, to safely satisfy the needs of chocoholics everywhere.

Words by Emma Henderson

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