When you sip a cup of hot chocolate today, you may not realize that the well-loved drink had a completely different identity during the age of The Way of the World. Chocolate, then an exotic spice to many eyes and palettes, first arrived in continental Europe in 1585. Over the next few years, the taste and aroma quickly became fashionable in many locations around the continent.
For those living in England, chocolate remained unknown until the mid-17th century. At that time, the city’s first chocolate house opened in East London, run by a Frenchman who sold a beverage described as an “excellent West India drink.” The mysterious substance quickly gained a strong reputation from those “in the know.” Various advertisements claimed that chocolate would reverse the aging process, serve as an aphrodisiac, and cure the previous evening’s hangover. Recipes for chocolate drinks included such mixtures as sugar, cacao beans, cinnamon, powdered cloves, chili, and dark Mexican chocolate. Thus, for the general public in London, chocolate quickly gained a reputation as an expensive and fashionable drink, which led to London’s first chocolate houses.
The new chocolate houses were exclusively centered around St. James’s Square in the city. Such a prestigious address naturally drew the highest ranks of London society. The houses are described by historians as “dens of debauchery” and “pictures of greed and despair.” Several alternative destinations emerged. The Cocoa Tree house, located on Pall Mall, included an underground passageway from the house to a nearby tavern in the event visitors needed to depart secretly to another location. Another original chocolate house, White’s House on St. James’s Street, continues to exist today as an exclusive men’s club with approximately 500 members, including Prince Charles and Prince William, and a nine-year wait for admitting new members. Historians note that White’s was a top destination for “gaming for the most fashionable gentleman of the city.”
In the Restoration era, the chocolate house served as a destination of exuberance and decadence. It was not uncommon to find members placing extreme bets on what they could get away with, or crafting a plot to overthrow someone in a position of power. Such activities served as continued examples of status, and the crafty games people could play with a simple roll of the dice or glib remark off the tongue.
So it is In The Way of the World we see the chocolate house set the stage for a plot of intrigue and more than a few games of repartee.
Sources: “The Surprising History of London’s lost chocolate houses”, article featured in The Telegraph (UK) on December 13, 2013, written by Dr. Matthew Green, and “A Chocolate Tour of London: A Taste of the Past”, featured in The Guardian on December 23, 2013, written by Isabel Choat.