Alimentary, my dear Watson

December 20, 2019

Over the past two months, we have explored chocolate consumption before 1820, when preindustrial science made producing anything solid with cacao very difficult. Once broken, shelled, roasted, and ground into a paste, the cacao bean’s structure acts according to its composition, part solid and part butter. It’s an oily, crumbly mass that can be rolled into clods for storage but does not hold up well to molding. Rumor has it that Sulpice Debauve achieved a medallion-sized wafer in the 1780s for Marie-Antoinette, the queen of fantasy come to life, and created a chocolate candy coating for Napoleon, the confectioner of empire out of republic. Otherwise, throughout the 18th and well into the 19th century, apothecaries serving the solvent rank-and-file provided a routine variety of chocolate compounds that addressed minor ailments and conditions, from lethargy to spasms. They sold compounded, pleasant tasting tablets for home brewing to be consumed as a hot beverage.

 

Still, dreams propel science, which, in turn, occasionally materializes them. Experiments bubbled in laboratories all over Europe but two confectioners take credit for decisive innovations that set the stage for chocolate to turn into a candy bar: Casparus van Houten and J. S. Fry & Sons. Van Houten invented a hydraulic press that extracted the oily part of the bean (its white coating) from the nib core in 1828. Once the majority of the oil was removed, the solids could be ground into a dry powder. His son Coenraad Johannes then learned to treat the powder with an alkaline agent, which reduced the bitter-tasting (and nutritious) flavanols present naturally in the bean. The resulting dark, mild powder proved crucial to transitioning cacao fully from a medicinal tonic to a dessert base. The powder is now known in van Houten’s honor as Dutch or Dutched cocoa.

 

[Side bar: Natural, as opposed to Dutched, cocoa results from separating the butter simply by heating the beans until it drips off, a method known for reasons unclear as “Broma” (Greek for food, as in Theobroma cacao). The Ghirardelli family in California claims invention of this method in the 1860s.]

 

Furthermore, learning to separate the butter from the nib made it possible to put the richness of pure cacao butter to use. Joseph Fry tried adding supplemental butter to ground cacao paste, which resulted in a wholly different texture. That butter boost gave cacao the structure it needed to become moldable, melting-in-your-mouth chocolate. Decades later, the tasty fats were sugared and sold as “white chocolate" candy, too.

 

Buy this adorable set of Van Houten's Cacao chromolithographic advertising cards here

 

19th-century literature attests to the coming of the high age of the chocolate bar and the chocolate bonbon. As the above image attests, the Dutching process also set the stage for cocoa of the 20th century to be served as a sweet powder, no longer a breakfast food, but a winter treat for children and fireside adults.

 

What then became of chocolate’s centuries old claims to medicinal application once sweeteners corralled chocolate into the confectioner’s shop and the gnome's cup?

 

French apothecaries, descendants of those who had peddled the drug in the 18th century, mounted a fin de siècle campaign to save chocolate from complete degeneration into junk food. They were part of a new food movement that advocated getting nutrients from traditional solids by dehydrating them into water-soluble powders. The solids of choice: meat and cacao. Louis-Marie Rousseau, a pharmaceutical chemist by trade, certified in 1874 (Raynal, 67), was among the first pharmacists to patent this new form of dietary comestible. He received a 15-year patent as early as the 1883 for the French Hygienic Company (Société hygiènique française) to produce the wholly unappetizing, astronaut-like supplement called “Rousseau meat powder” (Poudre de viande Rousseau).

 

He pitched the powder as a new form of meat preservation, although as the matter changed form rather dramatically in the course of this process, it makes more sense to consider it a way to preserve the nutrients in meat long beyond the point when flesh would spoil.

 

15-year Patent for Rosseau's "Conservation of raw or cooked meats, dehydrated" (Bulletin des lois de la République Française, 1884)

 

Both raw and cooked meat could be processed this way. Once dehydrated, the meat was sanitized with alcohol (or the oxymoron "non-toxic ether") and then dried again and granulated. While the legal brevet does not detail how to ingest the meat once powdered, logic and the stomach simply reject the idea that you would drink it as a cold beverage. Instead, extant medical records suggest, it was served as a warm soup, effectively the first bouillon cube. Hospitals fortified patients with le Poudre de viande Rousseau (Raynal 70).

 

What worked on beef could be adapted to the supplement-turned-candy that had occupied the mind of pharmaceutical history since the 17th century: cacao. Rousseau Chocolate (Le Chocolat Rousseau) had the distinction, like beef, of being a powder specifically designed to provide added nutritional value to the diet. This innovation attached Rousseau’s name to a manner of taking chocolate that badly needed its medicinal legitimacy restored in a world newly full of people croquant Victorian bonbons.

 

[Another Side Bar: Rousseau's mania for nutrition led him to combine his talents to create the first, and last, meat-based chocolate tablets (Le Chocolat Rousseau à la poudre de viande). The French Minister of War apparently sent the supplement to troops, recommending they eat 3-4 tablets a day (Raynal 71).]

 

Success in Paris and a reorientation away from meat circa 1890 called for a new production site. Rousseau took his wisdom and pharmaceutical laboratory out to Ermont, a town north of Paris. There, out of Ermont, came his magnum opus: Rational Chocolate (Le Chocolat rationnel), available only at pharmacies. This chocolate benefits from the intellectual weight of the moniker rational, which conjures images of reasonable behavior and intellectual rectitude.

 

 Back of an advertising card for the Musée du Luxembourg, circa 1893.

 

How precisely he understood his product to be “rational” does not emerge readily from the extant publicity campaigns, though they do attest to its popularity. A dictionary definition drawn from the field of medicine circa 1873 offers insight:

 

Medical term. Rational treatment, a method of treating an ailment that is founded on physiological and anatomical indicators, etc., and which is not the mere result of empirical analysis.

 

Terme de médecine. Traitement rationnel, système de traitement d'une maladie qui est fondé sur des indications suggérées par la physiologie et par l'anatomie, etc. et qui n'est pas le simple résultat de l'empirisme. (Dictionnaire de la langue française, Volume 4)

 

By calling his resurrected pharmaceutical chocolate “rational,” Rousseau makes an objective medical argument in its favor, one that flies in the face of his 17th-century forefathers. They advocated for compounds based on a patient’s individual humoral needs. Rousseau’s pharmaceutical chocolate draws on his knowledge of chemistry and the body’s—anybody’s—modern alimentary needs. We can further surmise that in its day, Rational Chocolate positioned itself firmly against confectioner’s and baker’s chocolate. Its reasonable appeal stems from its “incomparable alimentary value” (advert card above), which helped Rousseau market it as a guarantee in the young mother’s arsenal of tricks to improve the health of her child within the toxic industrialized world.

 

In short, putting chocolate back behind the apothecary’s counter made the powder an antidote to its bastard siblings, the bar and the bonbon, not to mention fin de siècle grit and grime. Rousseau went on to perform the economical and chemical feat of extracting theobromine (the bitter alkaloid stimulant present in cacao and named for that bean) from cacao shells. Touting the crystalized substance as a “decaffeinated” energy boost, he sold it in the form of a pill that adults could pop for a milder, longer lasting buzz than caffeine could achieve.

 "Former pharmacist who now produces chocolate and in particular a baby food, which he calls kamechine*. He also had the welcome idea to extract theobromine from cacao shells and market it caffeine-free" (Haller, Industries Chimiques et Pharmaceutique, 1903)

*At the time of this blog's publication, the composition of kamechine remains a mystery. Period dictionaries suggest that the name refers to a wind of the Egyptian desert. Kamechine may well be Rousseau's trade name for the "Milk Flour" (Farine Lactée) advertised below Rational Chocolate on the Luxembourg Museum card above. Henri Nestlé had invented milk flour in the 1870s before mixing milk with cacao.

Bibliography

 

Haller, Albin. Industries Chimiques et Pharmaceutiques. Vol. 1. Paris: Gauthier-Villars, 1903.

 

Littré, Emile. Dictionnaire de la langue française, Vol. 4, 1873.

 

Raynal, Céline. "Louis-Marie Rousseau et le « Chocolat rationnel des pharmaciens français." Revue d'histoire de la pharmacie 385 (2015): 65-78.

 

Bulletin des lois de la République Française. Vol. 28. Paris: Imprimerie Nationale, 1884.

 

 

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