How to Fit In with the French Aristocracy, 1685 Edition

 

In 1671, Philippe Dufour republished René Moreau's French translation of Antonio Colmenero’s treatise on chocolate. The 1671 amended reprint of the obscure 1643 treatise was an attempt to encourage the French public to drink hot chocolate, which had grown in popularity in England and Spain. The treatise was wildly successful, Dufour reports, and by 1685 chocolate had become so popular among the French elite that he felt the need to write a second treatise: New and Curious Treatises on Coffee, on Tea, and on Chocolate, a Work Equally Necessary to Physicians & to All Those Who Care For Their Health.* For this treatise he decided to enhance the translation of Colmenero with fourteen years of his own experience with chocolate that he gained as a merchant. He could tell the story of chocolate from beginning to end; where it came from, how to best harvest it, where to sell it, and how to make it into a drink. Beyond that, and perhaps more significantly, he could explain why it was important for the French aristocracy to consume it.

 

This time chocolate wasn’t a strange new drink to Dufour’s audience; it was a familiar social norm. In the treatise, he examines chocolate “no longer ... as a beverage peculiar to America ... but as a drink which has naturalized itself among us.” (100). This second treatise gives insight into how Europeans transformed chocolate from the original, “exotic” Mesoamerican drink into something new and appropriately Continental. The preparation of chocolate in Europe no longer reflected only it medicinal uses, but appealed to personal taste and social etiquette. While Dufour’s focus remains primarily medical, as the drin was still considered a drug, he was the first to capitalize on the fact that chocolate had passed out of a strictly health-related context and into French culinary culture.

 

The use of cacao as a social drink is evident in Dufour’s description of the French method of the preparation of chocolate: “Generally we put in the chocolate pot or the pipkin … as many cups of water as there are people who desire to take it: then this water is brought to boil…” (120) Here chocolate is described as being made not just for an individual, but for a group of people. Making one batch of chocolate for multiple people must have been a common practice if Dufour’s description of chocolate preparation includes it. The inclusion of this detail implies further that in France in 1685 chocolate was consumed in groups for the purpose of socializing over a beverage. At the time it would have been unusual for a member of the French aristocracy not to have a chocolate pot in which to make chocolate, as evidenced in part of a letter written by the Marquise de Sévigné, a high-ranking courtier at the court of Louis XIV, to her daughter in 1671: “But you are not well. You have not slept at all. Chocolate would restore you, but you do not own a chocolate pot—I’ve thought about that time and again. How will you manage?” (qtd. and trans. in Jones, 126)

 

In her letter, Madame de Sévigné impressed upon her daughter the importance of owning a chocolate pot circa 1670 for the purposes of making this home remedy. Chocolate was considered exotic and potent it would have been a faux pas to not make it in appropriate cookware to achieve just the right effect. The commonplace chocolate pot, along with the quality of the chocolate served in it, attest to how fashionable the drug had become.

 

In 1680s France chocolate was in the process of becoming a signifier of social status, which meant that everyone who was anyone needed to know how to make it. Dufour facilitated this spread of knowledge by providing information on both the chocolate ingredients described by Colmenero and the rare ingredients added by people of French high society to improve chocolate’s flavor and quality and show off their good taste. As Dufour explains, “The luxurious [elite] add to this preparation a few drops of essence of Amber, which they throw into the chocolate pot, or some little piece of an amber-scented Lozenge is put in the cup, which enhances its goodness remarkably. There are even some who, to increase its delicacy, in place of Sugar substitute Egyptian Sherbet, which, being good, makes it infinitely more pleasant” (120-21).

 

Egyptian sherbet -- syrup made from fruit or flowers mixed with water or snow -- added flavor to the chocolate. In the Middle East, Egyptian Sherbet was made to please the senses and replace alcohol. The more delicate the flowers used to make the sherbet, the better tasting it was assumed to be. This kind of addition to chocolate was made solely to create a “more pleasant” taste, not for health. It was considered a more “luxurious” sweetener and was more expensive than sugar, so only someone of considerable wealth would do something as extravagant as put sherbet into their chocolate.

 

Amber likely refers to ambergris, which is a secretion from a whale’s digestive tract that surrounds consumed squid beaks and prevents them from damaging the whale’s intestines as they pass through (Cousin de Courchamp). The ambergris then floats around the ocean until it eventually gets washed up on shore, where people can collect it. This was the only way to harvest ambergris, which made it a rare and valuable commodity. It was used in perfumes of the time, as well as in culinary applications to give foods an exotic flavor.

 

The French were accustomed to the scent from their perfumes, a mark of high society, so putting it into the chocolate would serve the twofold purpose of making it smell and taste more familiar and exhibiting the fashionable habit of putting a valuable substance into chocolate. The addition of a flavor specific to the European palette would have made the chocolate a distinctly European beverage; ambergris has a unique smell and taste, so it cannot be a substitute for a Mesoamerican ingredient. It would have been added because it smelled and tasted good to French people at the time and was a mark of luxury. If Dufour considered the use of ambergris and Egyptian sherbet in chocolate worth mentioning they must have been fairly common additions.

 

At this point in time, there was room in the discussion of the preparation of chocolate for individual preference and taste. As Dufour explains, “It is with Chocolate as with other drinks: it is almost impossible to find that which will please every taste. [...] I should not be surprised at it, for who has the right to take away from the taste of each individual the privilege of judging for himself of different flavours? If it were otherwise, what would become of the proverb which says that there is to be no dispute about differences of taste?” (131).

 

The proverb Dufour references here is likely de gustibus non est disputandum, which translates roughly to “there shall be no disputing about taste.” A few decades after Dufour’s treatise, this proverb morphed into the phrase better known today, “there’s no accounting for taste,” which implies that taste is unique to each person. Spain and England had each already developed their own methods of chocolate preparation to align with the tastes of their people in mind. Now France was taking the opportunity to create its own unique chocolate enhancements and Dufour presents to the rest of the world, demonstrating the contributions of French taste to the methods of preparing chocolate. What’s more, Dufour uses the terms ‘taste’ and ‘good taste’ almost interchangeably, suggesting that French taste was good taste.

 

By 1685, chocolate had become so popular in homes and social gatherings that people developed a specific taste for how it should be made. Throughout his treatise Dufour explaines the lavish ingredients that were added to chocolate so that those serving it could demonstrate the drinker’s refined taste. Dufour notes that this attention to detail involved surveying the process of its preparation to ensure it was done properly and would not reflect badly on the host:

 

…without these pains [taken as the chocolate is being made] there is risk of being badly served, and far worse if one buys it from those who generally sell it, as they very rarely have any in the least degree good. This is so true that everyone at Cadiz who desires to have it capital, causes it to be made in their house and in their presence. (116). 

 

That everyone had it made in their presence if they wanted it made “capital” implies that the knowledge of how to make good chocolate was widespread at this point, even if the skill of manually making it remained rare. If the buyer was watching the person making the chocolate to ensure they did not ruin it, then they must have had some idea of how to make it themselves, which demonstrates an unprecedented number of aristocrats capable of self-medicating.

 

Here Dufour specifically references Cadiz, which was a large trading port in Spain and one of the main ports involved in the chocolate trade. This means people in Cadiz would have had cutting edge knowledge of chocolate from Mesoamerica. France was a trendsetter in many aspects of European culture, and if they wanted to be one for chocolate as well they would need to outdo the people of Cadiz. If all of the Cadiz elite knew how to make it, then all of the French elite would need to learn as well, and if they were behind the fashion curve, they could do so by reading Dufour’s treatise.

 

 

*While Dufour's 1671 treatise was translated in a timely manner by John Chamberlayne (1685), his 1685 treatise was not translated until the 20th century and has never been published. On behalf of the writers of this essay, the blog curator wishes to thank a number of people whose good will and hard work made it possible for us to obtain this rare English translation. Thanks to Victoria Ramirez, Content & Access A.R. Dykes Library, and Dr. Dawn McInnis, Rare Book Librarian at the Clendening History of Medicine Library, University of Kansas Medical Center for helping us hunt down a complete copy. Special thanks to Dr. Laurent Ferri, Curator of Pre-1800 Collections, and Dr. Heather Furnas, Imaging Services Coordinator & Reference Specialist in the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Carl A. Kroch Library at Cornell University for granting permission and then digitizing the translation for our use in this essay.

 

 

Bibliography

 

Cousin de Courchamps, Pierre-Marie-Jean. Dictionnaire général de la cuisine française ancienne et moderne. Paris: Plon Frères, 1853.

 

Dufour, Philippe. Traitez nouveaux & curieux du café, du thé et du chocolate. The Hague: Adrian Moetjens, 1685.

 

Jones, Christine A. Shapely Bodies: The Image of Porcelain in Eighteenth-Century France. Newark: University of Delaware, 2013.

 

Kemp, Christopher. Floating Gold A Natural (and Unnatural) History of Ambergris. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012.

 

Moses, A. H. New and curious treatises on coffee, on tea, and on chocolate : a work equally necessary to physicians, & to all those who care for their health. Manuscript, c. 1930. Archives 4600 Bd. Ms. 605, Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Carl A. Kroch Library, Cornell University.

 

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