Roundabout Halloween the sale of chocolate candy in the US soars. No one will give tricks. Children will reportedly net several pounds of treats per (pumpkin) head on their routes. That amount of sugary chocolate sets off alarms: for parents they sound panic, while for children who grew up on refined sweets, as it were, they ring of dreams come true. If for different reasons, similar alarms have been sounding ever since the bonbon made its elite confectionery debut. Before the 19th century, chocolate was a tonic and occasionally a chewy lozenge peddled by apothecaries, unless you were royalty.
The story of regal candy may or may not begin with one Sulpice Debauve, the ancestor and founder of an elite maison de chocolat still operating in Paris today under the still revered name Debauve & Gallais. Sulpice Debauve began training as a physician before taking his degree in pharmaceutical science circa 1790. By the time he came to that science, cacao had been an apothecary staple for nearly a century. While there were myriad recipes for chocolate as a dietary supplement, some of them traceable to Mesoamerica, and Europe had long prescribed it as a palatable drug, no one in Europe had experimented widely with chocolate as a flavoring for other medicines.*
Debauve would spend the next 30 years perfecting chocolate-based herbal remedies. In the meantime, his success would take him all the way to the imperial and royal residences of early 19th-century France as the appointed court chocolatier. When in the 1820s gastronomist Jean Anhelme Brillat-Savarin went in search of the perfect French chocolate, he found it chez Debauve. This address alone merited inclusion in the section on chocolate in Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin's La Physiologie du goût (The Physiology of Taste), whose adages about the role of food in human life turned into French (and then Western) culinary creed. The criteria for inclusion were specific and the standard high.
Chocolate ends the 6th meditation on “Specialties” and occupies the longest section of the chapter by far. An exceptional chocolatier makes “a chocolate that is sweet but not bland, strong but not bitter, spicy but not acerbic, and thickened but not starchy” (un chocolat qui soit sucré sans être fade; ferme sans être acerbe, aromatique sans être malsain, et lié sans être féculent, 120).
Though the subject of his study is the art of flavor and texture, Brillat-Savarin’s language for chocolate comes as much from medicine as from cuisine. Aromatics—spices—flavored food pleasurably but also had a documented effect on the body; they could become overpowering and thus, as he puts it, malsain, literally unhealthy, in the wrong proportions. Dosage mattered. Spice balance appears among Brillat-Savarin’s criteria because chocolate was typically served savory and sweet, since pungency both enhanced the natural bouquet of cacao and contributed to the health benefits of the prepared beverage. Over-sweetening would dull the spice and render its pungency bland (fade), which would, in turn, affect the way the mouth responds to it. Early drinkers also considered chocolate a distilled liquor like Ratafia, wine, and eau de vie. When he asks that the drink be lié, Brillat-Savarin likens chocolate’s frothy thickness to the result of fermentation—une lie refers to the solid particles that settle as sediment. Chocolate’s sediment—particles of nib that inevitably separate again after frothing—had nutritional value but could weigh down the texture and make it starchy on the tongue. He wants the natural thickness of stirred cacao balanced rather than dominant in the finished tonic.
Brillat-Savarin also kindly documents a few of Debauve’s medicinal blends, each of which targeted a particular ailment:
for people whose figure has fallen away, he makes restorative chocolate with sahlep; for those with delicate nerves, antispasmodic chocolate with orange flower; for the irritable, chocolate with almond milk; to which list he will surely add chocolate of the afflicted, compounded with ambergris and dosed secundum artem.
…aux personnes qui manquent d'embonpoint, il offre le chocolat analeptique au salep; à celles qui ont les nerfs délicats, le chocolat antispasmodique à la fleur d'oranger; aux tempéraments susceptibles d'irritation, le chocolat au lait d'amandes; à quoi il ajoutera sans doute le chocolat des affligés, ambré et dosé secundum artem. (120)
He suggests the compound “chocolate of the afflicted” and invented that name for it, he explains, because he has seen le chocolat à l’ambre help the hung over, the overworked, the temporarily insane, the weather-challenged, and the obsessed, all of whom can be said generally to be “afflicted” (117-18). Alexander Dumas was so taken with Brillat-Savarin’s endorsement of chocolat ambré as a cure for what he called general fatigue that he reproduced the latter's discussion of it in his 1873 Grand Dictionnaire de Cuisine (420).
Ambergris, a waxy byproduct of the sperm whale’s digestion, appears to be its physiological response to undigestible matter (bird beak, etc.), which it balls up and expels either by projection up the esophagus or by passage through the digestive tract. These mammoth-sized chunks logically smell of digested matter when they exit the whale, but that very-foulness ages into a unfoul musk-like aroma. In cookery, where it had been used notably in desserts (!) since the 17th century, ambergris acts as a slurry and adds an unforgettable taste that we might call essence of dung-flower. By adding that Debauve would of course compound this preparation secundum artem, Brillat-Savarin gestures to the delicate craft of making ambergris chocolate from scratch, an aromatic tightrope walk best left to seasoned pharmacists.
Unfair as it may sound to serve someone whale-slurry chocolate when they are already afflicted by something terrible, this recipe had pedigree. Thomas Gage (1648) and Henry Stubbe (1662) both recommend it in their versions of restorative chocolate. Rebeckah Winche logged it along with the other musk—nutmeg—among the ingredients for “Chacolet” tablets in her family cookbook (1666).
If costly ambergris represented a staple in chocolate preparation and a gem in Brillat-Savarin’s gastronomy--the difficulty of appreciating its vile pungency made it an acquired taste--another compound had pride of place in Debauve’s apothecary-chocolateria. Orchid bulb powder, known as sahlep in Turkish, was as popular in the Ottoman world as chocolate was in France. Debauve had done his main pharmaceutical research on this supplement. Edouard Foucaud noted in 1841 that along with Debauve, a then student of pharmacy, one Félix Gallais, was producing the definite study on the subject that he would soon publish (481). Curiously, this Gallais was not the nephew who went on to become Debauve’s collaborator and whose name then appeared on the shop sign.
An advertisement for the Debauve & Gallais chocolate shop printed in the Paris newspaper L’Ami de la religion early in 1861 (above) highlights two other compounds: “théïed-brorne or cold minute-chocolate, and children’s chocolate.” As for the first, a preparation that made it possible to travel with chocolate and make it quickly, the spellings are inexplicable. Let us instead call it "travel chocolate." Whatever the case, travel and children's chocolate compounds leave little doubt of two things: 1) the compounds were usually served warm, and 2) the form the compound took in the Debauve & Gallais shop was a drink, not an edible. (Note, too, that they refer to his sahlep as "salep de Perse," Persian sahlep.)
Then why would the Debauve & Gallais house be the subject of a post on candy on Halloween? They were indeed Purveyors of aliments (nutritious foods) and friandises (sweets). But Brillat-Savarin’s exposition of “le bon chocolat” and all its examples in his work and the other documents cited here refer exclusively to drinking chocolate. Dumas indeed understands Brillat-Savarin to be talking about chocolate as a “gastrointestinal tonic substance” (419).
Yet, today, when Debauve & Gallais celebrate highlights of their ancestor’s career—the shop is still run by a Debauve descendant—they focus on a different innovation: edible chocolate, which they declare Sulpice’s invention. Louis XVI’s court-appointed (and very young) apothecary apparently worked the bean enough to do what no one else had done: produce a paste that could sustain be compounded into round disks you could eat. They were the apparent delight of Marie-Antoinette, a liquid chocoholic up to that point. The excitable queen dubbed these sweet curative edibles pistoles for their resemblance to gold coin. They are sold today under that name (along with hers).
Debauve & Gallais thus credit Sulpice with creating the first chocolate sweets in 1779, more than a decade before he finished his pharmacy studies, fifty years before Cailler claims Louis Cailler molded the first bar, and nearly a century before Cadbury claims Richard Cadbury molded the first bite-size candies. The same pharmacist who created the pistole under Louis XVI survived the revolution to become Napoleon’s, Louis XVIII’s, and then Charles X’s court-appointed chocolatier during the stormy first decades of Republican, imperial, and royal 19th-century France. Napoleon, they say, had a sweet tooth for what the company now calls “croqueamande,” chocolate almond clusters.
Pending archival research, we can only conclude that the family knows its ancestor best. Still, it is as startling as the taste of ambergris itself that Debauve & Gallais now identify the friandises, sweets, as the pharmaceutical chocolate for which Debauve was best known, while period documents mention them only in passing and date the whole Sulpice affair more than 20 years after the death of Marie-Antoinette. Of course, liquid dietary supplements (much less those made with mammalian excretion), which were common fare, would not delight a Marie-Antoinette like the novelty of a chocolate nibble worth it's weight in pistoles, and they certainly don’t hold a candle to the fame and fortune of that luxury Paris treat in the 21st century.
*According to Edouard Foucaud’s biography in Les artisans illustres, Sulpice Debauve did not become a pharmacist until 1790 and only "in the middle of the revolutionary storms" (au milieu des orages révolutionaires, 481) did he explore cacao as a dietary supplement and, ingeniously, as a coating or “vehicle” for bad-tasting medicines.
Brillat-Savarin, Jean Anthelme. La Physiologie du goût, ou méditations de gastronomie transcendante . Paris: Charpentier, 1842.
Debauve & Gallais, Chocolatier des rois de France. "Our History"
Demouveaux, Gautier. "Le premier chocolat à croquer était médicinal," L'Edition du soir, December 22, 2017.
Dumas, Alexandre. Grand Dictionnaire de Cuisine. Ed. J. Vuillemot. Paris, A. Lemerre, 1873.
Foucaud, Edouard. Les artisans illustres. Béthune et Plon, 1841.
L’Ami de la religion. Tome VIII. Paris: Imprimerie de Soye et Bouchet, January 17, 1861.