York's Delicious Heritage: Chocolate
By Mansion House Team - 08 April 2020
York's Delicious Heritage: Chocolate
In the Mansion House, and I’m sure in many other homes up and down the country, Easter is synonymous with one thing – chocolate. It is around this time of year when our Historic Kitchen would usually be filled with the unmistakable scent of chocolate which is being gently melted over the stove, whisked in giant copper bowls and poured in to tiny delicate glasses. This is a smell which York residents will already be entirely familiar with, as it is the one that still fills the city streets when the wind happens to be blowing in the right direction. I like to think of it as York’s way of reminding us of its chocolatey past.
Indeed, York is a city that is wedded to chocolate, and its obsession with the cocoa truly began in the Georgian period, when the Mansion House was new and shiny. Chocolate was first introduced and promoted to Londoners in the 1640s, having been brought to Europe by the Spanish from their colonies in modern-day Guatemala and Mexico. Chocolate Houses, where customers could buy a cup of chocolate for just a few pence, soon established themselves as political, male-dominated spaces in the capital. However, it took a while for chocolate to reach other parts of the country. Research has shown that when the Mansion House was being constructed in the 1720s, ownership of the equipment needed to prepare chocolate was still rare outside of London and it is thought that initially at least, chocolate remained a ‘metropolitan phenomenon’.
Nevertheless, we know that demand for chocolate was firmly established in York by the mid-eighteenth century. By 1752, Mary Tuke and her nephew William were manufacturing their ‘Superior Rock Cocoa’ in their shop on Walmgate. Recipe books from this period also indicate that cooks in grand townhouses such as the Mansion House were experimenting with chocolate; one of our favourite recipes to cook in our eighteenth-century Kitchen is a recipe for ‘Chocolate Cream’ from Elizabeth Moxon’s English Housewifry, a book originally published in 1741 in Leeds. The recipe which combines chocolate with cream, eggs and sugar, calls for use of a ‘chocolate stick’ which suggests that specific equipment had finally arrived in the provinces and was available to Moxon’s middle class audience.
Elizabeth Moxon's recipe for Chocolate Cream
Cooks and servants making dishes such as Chocolate Cream would have been using a form of chocolate very different to the glossy solid bars we know today. They would have milled cacao nibs and ground them in to an intensely bitter powder. This powder could have then been used in cooking, but was most commonly served in a liquid drink, made with either water or milk. The drink could be flavoured with sugar and spices to disguise the bitterness of the cacao.
Drinking chocolate was thought to offer a multitude of health benefits including improving digestion and curing consumption. It also was believed to aid fertility, meaning many doctors prescribed chocolate to their female patients of child bearing age.
Despite its new-found place in the Kitchens and on the dining tables of the wealthy, chocolate did not automatically become associated with Easter as it is today. In the eighteenth century, hard boiled brightly coloured eggs were sometimes given as gifts at Easter. It was also traditional to eat hot cross buns on Good Friday, often purchased from sellers walking the streets with overflowing baskets of sweet, spiced treats. Samuel Johnson is documented to have feasted on them on Good Friday in 1773, washed down with another Georgian favourite, tea, which is a whole other blog post for another week.
Find out more about York Mansion House's chocolate heritage, and follow along to make your own chocolate cream by visiting our YouTube channel.
Georgia Owen, York Mansion House Steward