Colonial Chocolate


Journeyman cook Jim Gay explains that Americans’ love of chocolate dates back to the beginning.

Learn more: Historic foodways


Hi, welcome to Colonial Williamsburg, Past and Present on This is Behind the Scenes, where you meet the people who work here. That's my job, I'm Lloyd Dobyns, and mostly I ask questions.

Chocolate held the same appeal in the 18th century as it does in the 21st. Our forefathers spiced it, baked it, drank it, and drizzled it with an eagerness which makes the past seem not such a distant place. A journeyman cook in Historic Foodways, Jim Gay, is here to talk with us about making chocolate.

Lloyd: I've always wanted to know – is chocolate addictive?

Jim Gay: Addictive, probably not. Not in the sense like caffeine or nicotine or something like that. But there are stimulants in chocolate, like theobromine, which is similar to caffeine, but is not addictive in the sense of you need it to get out of bed kind of stuff.

Lloyd: I have known people who seem to need it in order to get out of bed.

Jim: I think it's one of those universally craved foods, you know? You can think of all the foods that are out there that are people have a compulsion, they need it, they say they need it. It's more psychological than a physical thing, though.

Lloyd: Chocolate has not always been the same. Chocolate in the 18th century is not chocolate in the 21st century.

Jim: That's correct. That's right. Chocolate in the 21st century, you think of something to eat. It's a candy. Something in chocolate in the 18th century is something that you cook and generally drink as a beverage, or cook and turn into a pudding or custard or something like that. But it wasn't a candy bar in the 18th century.

You can say that that's following a tradition that goes back about 3,000 years. Chocolate goes back to, you know, pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. From maybe 3,000 years ago all the way up to around 1840, 1850, it was considered to be a beverage that's cooked, not something that's eaten as a candy.

Lloyd: So the way we fix chocolate would be milk and chocolate. What was it then?

Jim: Similar. There's really three kinds of chocolate as a beverage. You have it as what they call water chocolate, milk chocolate, or wine chocolate. So it, that describes the beverage, or describes the liquid. But in the recipe that we have for water chocolate, you put a little shot of brandy. So, give us an opportunity, we will put alcohol in it.

Lloyd: Brandy chocolate is not something I would have thought of, I must admit.

Jim: Well, all three of those are to be consumed as hot as possible. That's one of the things that is a real change in terms of food consumption, drink consumption. It hits Europe and America in the middle of the 17th century.

All three of those are consumed hot because all three of those melt sugar. So sugar is the criteria that ties all three of those together. You won't see chocolate consumed until, at least in the British colonies and then Britain, until they establish sugar plantations in Barbados in the 1640s or so.

Lloyd: But you said chocolate went back 3,000 years or so.

Jim: Well, the drinking of the beverage made from cacao seeds, or cocoa seeds, goes back to the Olmec civilization back in the Yucatan area, about 1500 BC to 2000 BC, something like that. It was the Spaniards who invaded Mexico who encountered the Aztecs drinking this beverage. It was unsweetened, as a spicy unsweetened beverage that the Spaniards took and took old world sugar, added it to that and consumed it as hot as possible and named it chocolat.

All the ingredients were from the New World, except for sugar. In fact, everywhere the Spaniards went in colonization in the New World, they took the seeds of that cacao, the cocoa beans, with them, grew it, and consumed it. For about a half century, it was just in the New World, the chocolate. It wasn't until about 50 years later that the first cocoa bean went to Europe, and that was like in 15, late '80s. 1589, something like that. The British didn't have it until about the middle of the 17th century.

Lloyd: So chocolate obviously has been around for a very long time. Been very popular the whole time it's been around.

Lloyd: The Indians in Mexico took unsweetened, spicy chocolate. What was it spiced with?

Jim: Oh, chilies, vanilla, some varieties of local flowers and various things like that. I've seen some botanists claim that they can actually have a sweetening effect, but not sugar. Sugar is something that comes from the Old World. Aztecs, interestingly enough, didn't grow cacao. They grew, they received it from the Maya. But they didn't grow it. So there was trade going on, even in the pre-Columbian world. In fact, cocoa beans were, to the Aztecs, what tobacco was to the Virginians. In other words: money. So they'd actually use cocoa beans as a trade item, as money.

Lloyd: Well there's no reason not to if people want it.

Jim: That persisted even into the 18th century. Traders down in the West Indies could actually get change in cocoa beans.

Lloyd: You've said that cocoa and sugar go together. Is it the sweetness that people like?

Jim: Well, chocolate is naturally bitter. Cocoa beans are naturally bitter. You don't like chocolate unless there's sugar in it, I'm pretty sure. I do, because I make it, and I taste it, and I need to know how it tastes at various steps in the process. I've gotten used to it. But as you grind it finer and finer, it gets more bitter. So at some point, sugar is absolute necessity, or it would be not palatable, I guess you could say.

But if you think of the modern world, you define chocolate by sugar. You hear about semi-sweet, bittersweet, even the dark chocolate they talk about 70 percent, 50 percent. You know what they're talking about – that's the amount of cocoa mass that's in the candy bar. Well the other percentage they don't speak of is sugar. So if you get, say, 70 percent chocolate, you've got 30 percent sugar.

Lloyd: I had never thought of that, but obviously that makes perfect sense.

Jim: The one exception to that rule is baking chocolate, which is unsweetened chocolate. That's where the cook adds the sugar. I have one 18th-century recipe that calls for a ragout of chocolate to put over duck. That's not sweetened chocolate, that's like a Mexican molé.

Lloyd: The cooking part of it -- how many steps are there?

Jim: Oh jeez. Well, there's steps that begin in the rainforest and then continue on. They pick the fruit called cacao, they split it open, the seeds, or the pod, it kind of, some people say it looks like a cantaloupe crossed with a football. It's kind of a spherical shaped, sometimes kind of oblong-shaped. Looks to me like a squash.

Anyway, they whack that pod open, dig out the seeds. They let those seeds – that's step two – they let those seeds ferment, ok, which kills the next tree to come along, starts an enzymatic action that ultimately will taste like chocolate further on down the road, but it has to be fermented first. Also, those seeds will turn from the color white to the color brown, so they, because they're oxidizing like an apple, or a potato. So the color of chocolate is actually oxidation.

They dry those seeds, and then they bag them, and now it's called cocoa. So we've gone from cacao seeds to cocoa. That’s what you buy. Now when the chocolate maker gets a bag of that, he spreads it out, opens it up, he takes the rocks and the bug legs and all of the stuff that was on the forest floor, you know, the leaves away, and cleans all that up. That's whatever step we're at now.

Then, he roasts those seeds over the fire. The analogy is similar to coffee beans. You can have a high roast, a low roast, a medium roast, but that is the most critical step in the entire process, and that's where the flavor is set, is in the roasting. The chocolate maker attempts to get a place where they, what they call medium roast, where the flavor of the cocoa bean is married up with the flavor of the roast, so it's kind of a natural marriage. If you go too far and call it high roast, then you're tasting more burned and kind of ashy flavors. If it's under-roasted, it's more like the forest floor. You want to get that natural nuttiness that comes out of chocolate. So that's about the only cooking that you do. That's the only cooking that you do in the entire process.

From there on, you take the cocoa beans, and there's a little shell around each and every one of them. You have to take that off, it's kind of like a peanut, Spanish peanut. One of the things that we like chocolate about is the fact that it has such a high fat content. The fat is called cocoa butter. Each and every single cacao seed, cocoa bean, has anywhere between 40 and 60 percent fat. So when you grind it, a cocoa bean, it turns to a liquid.

You know what happens to coffee beans when you grind them – they turn to a powder. There's no fat in coffee beans, but with cocoa beans, they're about half fat. You start grinding, and it actually starts turning to a liquid. That's what we do as chocolate makers, is hand-grind. In the 18th century, we also had chocolate mills up in New England, New York, Philadelphia. So most Americans actually consumed a chocolate that was machine-made.

We've always had moderately inexpensive chocolate. That’s true, even in the 18th century. Chocolate wasn't an aristocratic beverage as it was in Europe. They didn't tax the cocoa beans or the chocolate nearly as much as the Europeans did, and they didn't give monopolies as they did in Europe to chocolate makers. So chocolate makers had pretty much a, just another commodity to grind. We didn't think of it, like I say, we didn't think of it like a confection, it was more a commodity to trade.

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