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The Brewmaster's Gadgets

Blegny, Le Bon Usage, 1687, Bibliotheque Interuniversitaire (BIU) Santé

Of all the writers on caffeinated drinks, Nicolas de Blégny, first physician to Louis XIV, goes furthest in turning them into a form of sociability. From a writer who did not have firsthand experience in Mesoamerica but did found the first medical journal in France, New Discoveries in all Areas of Medicine (Nouvelles découvertes sur toutes les parties de la médecine, 1679), one might expect abstraction and data. The Best Uses of Tea, Coffee, and Chocolate for Health and to Cure Illness (Le Bon usage du thé, du caffé [sic], et du chocolat pour la préservation et la guerison des maladies, 1687) instead borrows extensively from Dufour's discussion of how to drink and supplements it with technological innovations that encourage his fashionable urban clients to be healthy, even on the go.

Both because of his expertise and because of the novelty of his approach to tea, coffee, and chocolate as street medicine, multiple publishers in Paris and in Lyon printed copies of The Best Uses in 1687. Blégny speaks from the experience of one who has ingested and enjoyed these drinks for years, and watched them find an audience in the capital city. One way to think about this text is to consider it the culmination of years of social habit that began at court, spread when the aristocracy adapted the drug as a part of a healthy meal schedule, and became available to anyone who could afford to go to fashionable public spaces, such as cafés. Warm beverage drugs, along with liquors, served to supplement the elite culinary regime. As wisdom and trial and error had shown Parisians by the late 1680s, they could be taken as in-between meals, digestives, and pick-me-ups to fortify humoral health in the body.

Perhaps because of the way the drugs had passed into the daily diet and of the customs developing around them in Paris, Blégny altered Dufour’s order of things, placing rare and expensive tea in the lead position instead of coffee: Best Uses of Tea, Coffee, and Chocolate. The frontispiece also prioritizes tea by featuring a Chinese drinker, who serves as an illustration for how to hold a cup properly (discussed below). Not surprisingly, there is more emphasis on polite manners in this treatise than in any that precede it. No longer will certain utensils merely be culinary necessities (à la Madame de Sévigné); they will be social requirements: “The way of holding the cup has turned into a type of etiquette” (Bon Usage, 35).

Like Dufour, Blégny notes that in Europe coffee, tea, and chocolate are best enjoyed by the nobility (personnes de qualité) served in chiques — cups crafted from luxury materials such as crystal, porcelain, or Delftware (although he does not mention coconuts).To insist on the fact that this practice was de rigueur among elite consumers of all the beverages, he advises the use of the chique in each section of the treatise (35, 167, 267). Blégny not only declares the upscale cup to be a requirement of decorum as Dufour had, but also makes use of an image to illustrate how it should be held (see above). In his discussion of drinking tea, he refers the reader to the frontispiece of Best Uses, which captures a figure, identified in the caption as Chinese, in the act of lifting a chique to his lips with his little finer extended. [Spoiler alert: that is not a Chinese habit, but claiming it is serves Blégny well.] Drinking à la chinoise , which carried with it the stately etiquette of an ancient world empire, was thus the order of the day, for tea, coffee, and chocolate.

If he could not claim to unveil exotic beverages about which his public has little knowledge (as Dufour could in 1671), Blégny could at least be the one to teach Paris how to serve them according to the very latest trends in housewares. The théière (34), cafetière (149, 153, 155) and the chocolatière’s dowel for frothing (274), showcased in a series of engravings, illustrate for the first time the diversity of pots that needed to be acquired by the fashionable consumer. The novelty of the utensils is that they make preparation possible in any kitchen and, importantly for Blégny, double as decorative focal points for the consumer at table. In that sense, this is the moment when hot beverages services—the china serving sets still on marriage registries today—join plates and platters as essentials in the European pantry. But in these early years, the art of home brewing was still new and vessels of preparation brought out extraordinary innovation.

One of the inventions discussed at length in the book is a small stove to keep multiple coffee pots warm at once (162). Several points are made through this image and its description. On the one hand, in this and other illustrations, he supplies detail to convey the diversity and beauty of the wares for warm beverages. In the case of the warming stove, his knowledge also serves to show how much and how often he drinks. But his prized innovation, which he apparently sold for profit, was a cafetière portative, or portable coffee maker (151). Blégny appears to have invented the first coffee-on-the-go technology. While chocolate and tea brewing confined them to table service at this time, coffee, he hoped, would begin to travel with the consumer.

Blégny's fascination with the social possibilities of these drugs results in something like a trendy doctor's guide to self-medicating. In fact, as he recognizes, small appliances constitute his most important addition to the traditional subjects (science, dosage) of hot beverage treatises: “In addition, you will also find in these pages a variety of newly invented utensils and accessories that should satisfy the curiosity of its readers” (To the Reader, n.p.). For Blégny, the novelty and curiosity that had formerly pertained to the exotic contents could be extended to the vessels designed to tailor them to urban European taste. He anticipated by centuries the desire to have coffee anytime, anywhere.


Parts of this post were adapted from Christine A. Jones, "Exotic Edibles: Coffee, Tea, Chocolate, and the Early Modern French How-to," Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 43:3 (2013): 623-653.

Translations of Blégny were done by the author, The Cacaosopher, a.k.a., Christine A. Jones.

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