How The East India Company introduced cocoa to Europe
In a story for the senses, we delve into our rich past to uncover how cocoa made the journey
from piratical cast-off to one of the world’s most prized confections
With Easter fast approaching, many of us are looking forward to the chance to indulge in sumptuous chocolate treats. But did you know that it was The East India Company that first sailed cocoa to European shores? Every bite of chocolate consumed on the continent today has its roots in mid-17th century history.
It was the Spanish who first discovered cocoa beans during voyages to the New World, as English pirates – under authorisation from Queen Elizabeth I – discovered upon the looting of their ships. While the Aztecs had prized the cocoa that grew on their lands higher than gold – even using cocoa beans as currency – the strange and bitter new seeds held no appeal for the Englishmen. It is said that one crew even went as far as burning a shipload of cacao after mistaking the beans for sheep droppings.
However, cocoa imports were eventually successful, leading a new chocolate culture to take hold in Europe. While 1657 marks the sale of the first recorded chocolate drink in London, purchased from a shop named The Coffee Mill & Tobacco Roll, cocoa powder also began to be used as a baking ingredient during the same period. Over the next 10 years, an array of supposed health benefits sprung up around chocolate-based drinks, with pamphlets boasting their ability to do everything from improve fertility and cure consumption to even reversing the aging process. Renowned diarist Samuel Pepys went one further, claiming it as a sure-fire hangover cure, though many still held to the Aztec’s long-held belief that chocolate could be used as a powerful aphrodisiac.
As a result, “chocolate houses” sprung up around the capital, offering the crème de la crème of London’s society the opportunity to socialise whilst indulging in this fashionable new beverage. White’s Chocolate House, opened in 1693 by Italian immigrant Frances White, was perhaps the best known, followed closely by Ozinda’s in St James’s and the Cocoa Tree in Pall Mall. Given the exoticism of its origins and relative scarcity of quantities available, chocolate was soon seen as an ultra-desirable luxury item. Indeed, by 1760, the value of cocoa had soared so high that The East India Company had to pay a tax of two shillings per pound of cocoa imported – the equivalent of one day’s wages. Though chocolate has become much more readily available over the ensuing centuries, used in everything from alcohol and cooking ingredients to beauty products – truly exceptional chocolate, sourced using only the best quality beans from far-flung lands and crafted with artisanal savoir-faire, remains a real luxury.
Of course, The East India Company’s cocoa connections are still going strong today. Our enrobed chocolates, for instance, are made with the finest Belgian chocolate using 100% pure cocoa butter. The chocolate is made from a unique couverture of cocoa beans sourced from western Africa – specifically Ghana, the Ivory Coast and the island of Sao Tomé – resulting in a creamy texture, a glossy sheen, and an irresistibly rich flavour that lasts.
Discover more about our chocolate range here.