In Search of Succulence Lost
Chocolate is a favorite of in-vogue nutrition experts trying to expose the cure-all for human health. They have attributed many different and fantastic benefits to chocolate, including stroke prevention, intelligence, and a stronger heart (Heller, 2012; 2015). Besides health, chocolate also has a personality, being both romantic and classy. It has been paired with flowers as the perfect gift for Valentine's Day. Any food of this caliber deserves cookery of equal quality. If we were living in the seventeenth century, the French would be among the first to agree. If we look at the pots, pans, and utensils the French used to craft chocolate, we discover something about the magic it worked on them.
One of the first texts to list and explain the technical tools of the chcolate trade is Pierre Masson’s Le Parfait Limonadier, ou la Manière de Preparer Le Thé, Le Caffé, Le Chocolat, & Autres Liquers Chaudes et Froides / The Perfect Coffeeman, or the Way to Prepare Tea, Coffee, Chocolate, and Other Hot and Cold Drinks. In it Masson exemplifies the importance placed on using exactly the right containers for each part of the chocolate-making process; proper preparation requires bains-marie, alambics, and matras.** Masson’s list of pots used for cooking chocolate all also have a very specific role in the science of chemistry in the seventeenth century. The precision with which he selects his cooking tools highlights the complexity of chocolate, which was indeed prepared as a drug cocktail in his era and culture. This kind of care and concern for the professional preparation of cacao had not emerged as strongly in the earlier era of cacao’s arrival on the Continent.
Lady Ann Fanshawe's Recipe book, chocolate recipe c.1665
The conquistadors of Mesoamerica who shipped cacao to Spain sent back directions about preparing chocolate along with the beans. Antonio Colmenero, for example, demonstrates the way he learned it from criollas, the indigenous women charged with making it. For England, Wadsworth, Hughes, and Chamberlayne elaborate what the strange side effects of chocolate reveal about religion and man’s place in the universe. (Armuthaz spoofs the same.) Gage and Stubbe, for their part, suggest ingredients appropriate to add in Britain. The French, on the other hand, obsessed over pots. Their attention to preparation and serving detail, exemplified by Dufour’s 1685 treatise, shows that they handled chocolate as a force of nature to be tamed and made more beautiful through the chemical discoveries of the Baroque era.
So if chocolate was chemistry, who would rise to the occasion of mastering these many supplies and the powerful effects of chocolate? That honor fell upon the limonadier. While limonadier may not have an exact translation into English, the meaning is something between “coffeeman”, “bartender”, and “barista.” (We will return to its meanings below.) This traveling salesman was both a walking advertisement and the resident expert of his trade. His appearance was exotic, dashing, and somewhat intriguing. He would be carrying and using French instruments, but his Turkish dress and mustache would exoticise his European occupation. Once his look lured you in, his expertise would reassure that you were in good hands.
Larmessin, Coffee-Man's Outfit, c. 1705. The hippest trade in town.
Indeed a good limonadier worked with much more than just chocolate. Masson’s book, written by a practitioner for practionners, is filled with recipes for spirits, perfumes, pie fillings, fruit drinks, syrups, bottled fruit, candy, and medicine. If we were to categorize these recipes by ingredients used, we would find an overwhelming majority of the recipes for liquor are fruit-based. Fruits are an interesting contrast with the non-fruits chocolate, tea, and coffee. Why would brewed beans and leaves be included in a recipe book of recipes for fruit spirits? In fact, why should a limonadier be involved with these three drinks at all?
The word limonadier comes from the word limonade, which is a lemon-flavored drink, though in those days, it was typically a liqueur. How do chocolate, coffee, and tea fit into that job description? The answer may not be obvious to most twenty-first-century Americans, whose chocolate experience goes no further than Nestlé and Cadbury. First, each of these drinks was distilled like liquor, that is, boiled to extract an essence from their raw state in nature. Second, when chocolate contains little more than the cacao bean, as it did in the seventeenth century, it has a fruity taste to it, as one would expect from a fragrant bean. When craft chocolate makers try to create an authentic bar today, their goal is to capitalize on the unique flavor of the specific cacao bean.
Chocolate is sensitive to its environment and terroir, like wine grapes. A criollo cacao bean from Madagascar will have a different taste to it than the same bean grown in Peru. This is the great secret Masson is teaching us through the trade of the limonadier: chocolate belongs in dialogues about fruit.
In some ways, chocolate was the superfruit of the seventeenth century. In Masson’s book, he includes two cacao-based recipes; Maniere de préparer le Chocolat (How to prepare chocolate) and Pastille Chocolate (Chocolate lozenge). The lozenge recipe is new in the print tradition at the time. In both recipes, Masson gives shining accolades to the benefits of chocolate. In the first recipe, he writes that chocolate serves to “[fortifier] l’estomac & la poitrine, & de […] rétablir la chaleur naturelle" (to fortify the stomach and chest, and reestablish the natural heat). He then emphasizes one part of the body that no former writers on chocolate had noted explicitly: the voice. He notes that chocolate “fortifie & entrutient la voix” (fortifies and improves the longevity of the voice). In 1705, French was already a language of diplomacy spoken by sophisticated aristocrats across Europe and French taste was the exemplar of European arts and class. A beautiful voice fit right into the French idea of beauty and social grace. Any fruit that could improve the voice was a good fruit for France.
Significantly, too, the rise of chocolate in France coincides with the rise of the French café. Indeed, chocolate and cafés are both closely associated with class, beauty, and love. Before the limonadier hit the streets of France, coffee and chocolate were mostly consumed in the homes of France’s upper class. For the most part, they remained sophisticated habits of the gentry. However, after the enterprising Francesco Procopio dressed as an Armenian for his “coffeehouse” and introduced the drink to a wider public at a Saint-Germain-des-Près festival, the first whiff of what now know as the café exploded onto the Parisian scene. (DeJean, 138-39)
Soon, cafés were everywhere, but they hadn’t lost the original air of class and romance that the drinks carried in the homes of the aristocrats. Beverages in cafés at first maintained their prestigious reputation but soon provided more than a spot for the snacking and lounging common of the upper class. Around 1705 when our good friend Masson came onto the scene offering the exotic drinks, the populace was discovering cafés as a place to meet and talk politics. The dynamism of these public spaces proved so inviting that France soon had a coffee and chocolate habit.
Masson’s barista recipes for the chocolate spirit feature two prominent characteristics: its superfruit class and mystery that cafés helped diffuse from the upper class and experts, and its strong fruity nature. Society still maintains the first of these attributions, but the second has been tossed aside over the last few centuries. Chocolate was and is a sign of wealth and known to cure a plethora of maladies. So why doesn’t it still have a reputation for its flavor? This is the question that’s driving a micro-revolution in chocolate making. Most of us are still buying the highly altered recipes sold in grocery stores, but a growing number of discerning consumers are going to craft chocolate-makers who are buying the best quality cacao and striving to return to its original fruity flavor. The good news is that our culture is re-discovering a taste for cacao that it almost lost. These craft bars are more expensive than the run-of-the-mill bar for two reasons: 1) they tend to buy beans fairly from quality small-production farmers, and 2) they enhance and flaunt cacao’s natural flavors instead of hiding them under cheaper ingredients.
*All translations of Masson were done by the author of this essay and the curator of this blog.
**Bain-marie. A vessel of water in which saucepans, etc. are placed to warm food, or to prepare it and some pharmaceutical preparations. (OED)
Alambic. An early apparatus used for distilling, consisting of two connected vessels, a typically gourd-shaped cucurbit containing the substance to be distilled, and a receiver or flask in which the condensed product is collected. [Also,] the lid or head of the cucurbit together with its tube or beak which connects the two vessels. (OED)
Matrass. A glass flask with a round or oval body and a long neck, used chiefly in chemical distillation. (OED note 2)
"10 Ways Giving In To That Chocolate Craving Can Benefit Your Health." The Huffington Post. August 17, 2015.
Alambic. Oxford English Dictionary. 2016.
Bain-Marie. Oxford English Dictionary. 2016.
Colmenero de Ledesma, A. A Curious Treatise of the Nature and Quality of Chocolate. Trans. J. Wadsworth. London, England: J.G., 1652.
DeJean, Joan E.The Essence of Style: How the French Invented High Fashion, Fine Food, Chic Cafés, Style, Sophistication, and Glamour. New York: Free Press, 2005.
Dictionnaire de l'Académie française. 4th ed. 1762. ARTFL Project.
Heller, J. "11 Reasons Chocolate is Good for Your Health." The Daily Beast. March 28, 2012.
Larmessin, N. "Habit de Caffetier." Costumes Grotesques, 1695.
Matrass. Oxford English Dictionary. 2016.