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Hot chocolate spans the centuries

Recorder photos  by Trish Crapo

  • Nancy Howell of Old Deerfield grinds sugar using a mortar and pestle during a cooking demonstration on Sunday. Recorder/Trish Crapo

    Nancy Howell of Old Deerfield grinds sugar using a mortar and pestle during a cooking demonstration on Sunday. Recorder/Trish Crapo

  • Traditional spices that would have been used in open hearth cooking during the 1700s are part of a display at Old Deerfield. Recorder/Trish Crapo

    Traditional spices that would have been used in open hearth cooking during the 1700s are part of a display at Old Deerfield. Recorder/Trish Crapo

  • Nancy Howell of Old Deerfield shaves chocolate to make the traditional hot drink as it would have been made in the 1700s. Recorder/Trish Crapo

    Nancy Howell of Old Deerfield shaves chocolate to make the traditional hot drink as it would have been made in the 1700s. Recorder/Trish Crapo

  • Nancy Howell of Old Deerfield grinds sugar using a mortar and pestle during a cooking demonstration on Sunday. Recorder/Trish Crapo
  • Traditional spices that would have been used in open hearth cooking during the 1700s are part of a display at Old Deerfield. Recorder/Trish Crapo
  • Nancy Howell of Old Deerfield shaves chocolate to make the traditional hot drink as it would have been made in the 1700s. Recorder/Trish Crapo

DEERFIELD — Returning home from the family expedition to select a Christmas tree in the mid 1700s, Franklin County tots could expect not to be greeted with a steaming cup of hot chocolate, for two very good reasons.

First of all, explained Nancy Howell as she demonstrated chocolate preparation by the open hearth of the Hall Tavern in Historic Deerfield, Christmas was not celebrated.

The holiday smacked distastefully of Catholicism to Puritan sensibilities and it was not until the arrival of an Episcopal church in Greenfield in the next century that the holiday would appear locally, according to Howell.

Chocolate was a different matter.

The now ubiquitous remedy for chilled hands was available, but reserved for adults and consumed as a breakfast beverage in much the way tea would have been.

In fact, liquid would have been the only digestible form in which chocolate could be found, according to Howell.

“It was drunk until a Dutchman decided that there must be a better way to use it, it had more potential,” Howell said.

That innovator discovered a process to remove enough cocoa butter from the product to create cocoa powder, at which point it became a popular flavoring for cakes and confections, but it was not until the mid-1800s that chocolate saw common use as a nonbeverage.

The drink would also have had a very different flavor than its modern descendant.

Chocolate was originally a beverage of the South and Central American native populations, introduced to Europe by the Conquistadors, and Howell said the Native Americans used spices in their recipe.

Howell said anise, nutmeg, cinnamon, red and cayenne peppers, orange, salt, vanilla and annatto, a food coloring and light flavoring, all went into the terra cotta-colored chocolate bricks sold in the Colonial market, with sugar a Spanish contribution to the recipe.

To prepare the beverage, Howell scrapes a block of the surprisingly resistant chocolate with a paring knife, collecting the powder into a tin-lined copper chocolate pot before adding boiling water. The tall, narrow vessel holds a domed lid with a hole for the handle of the spoked wooden mixing rod used to mill the chocolate into a froth immediately before serving.

As Howell explains it, the beverage was consumed hot because the pre-Dutch process cocoa retained enough fat that boiling water was required for it to mix thoroughly.

That high fat content also helped to put the drink on the military menu.

“Benjamin Franklin recommends that it be given to the Revolutionary War soldier,” Howell said.

With the simplified culinary kit of a pen knife and saucepan, chocolate could be melted down and consumed as breakfast.

Howell said the beverage was both high in fat and contains the stimulant theobromine, found in the cacao plant.

“So it accomplishes two things: It gets them fired up a little bit and it also gives them energy,” Howell said.

More cooking demonstrations

Chocolate is just one of the historical edibles to cross the Hall Tavern’s kitchen table this winter.

Historic Deerfield’s Sugar and Spice cooking demonstration series runs the month of December, excluding today and Christmas day, from 9:30 to 4:30 p.m.

The transplanted historic tavern is closed to the usual stream of visitors, January through April, open for tours by appointment and with open-hearth cooking classes offered beginning in February. While they continue, the open hearth demonstrations are included in the price of musuem admission.

More information on the schedule, admissions and class registration are available at http://www.historic-deerfield.org.

You can reach Chris Curtis at:
ccurtis@recorder.com
or 413-772-0261, ext. 257

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