Chocolate hasn’t always been the sweet treat that many of us enjoy today, Chocolate  long and illustrious reputation. Made from cocoa, it was used by some of the earliest Mesoamerican cultures as, medicine, ritual offering and even currency.

In the 17th century when cocoa first made it’s epic  journey across the vast oceans from the Americas to Europe, it was thought to be magical, mysterious, an elixir if you will, that was eye wateringly expensive and regarded more as a magic potion than a drink.

Europeans who hadn’t yet traveled overseas were just trying the taste of coffee, chocolate, and tea for the very first time and they love it.

For these eager new consumers, of the infusions and brews of, foreign beans, seeds and leaves it brought them wonders and intriguing tales of a far distant culture,  people and lands.

At first cocoa wasn’t sold as a food, but as a medicine and you had to buy it in apothecary shops.

But only when prescribed by the apothecaries and doctors, in recommended dosages, they would often warn people about the dangers of  self-medication.

But as we got more used to cocoa and how to administer it we then learned to use and abuse these new drinks, some people started saying that they’d experienced moral and physical confusion brought on by its magical, frothy pungency, unpredictable effects, and even (allegedly) death.

Madame de Sévigné, marquise and diarist of French court life, famously warned her daughter about chocolate in a letter.

“And what do we make of chocolate? Are you not afraid that it will burn your blood? Could it be that these miraculous effects mask some kind of inferno [in the body]?”

These mysterious potent medicines (aka drugs) were met with curiosity and a measure of concern. In response, a written tradition of treatises was born over the course of the next hundred years. Chemists and tradesmen who claimed to experts in the fields from pharmacy to etiquette started spouting the health benefits of these new hot drinks or issuing warnings about their abuse.

In 1631 chocolate was the first of the three to enter the pharmaceutical annals published in Madrid: Curioso tratado de la naturaleza y calidad del chocolate by Antonio Colmenero de Ledesma. Colmenero’s short treatise dates from the era when Spain was the main importer of chocolate. Spain had occupied the Aztec territories since the time of Cortés in the 1540s — the first Spanish-language description of chocolate dates from the 1552 — whereas the British and French were only beginning to establish a colonial presence in the Caribbean and South America during the 1620s and 30s. Having acquired a degree in medicine and served a Jesuit mission in the colonies, Colmenero was as close as one could come to a European expert on the pharmaceutical qualities of the cacao bean. Classified as medical literature in libraries today, Colmenero’s work introduced chocolate to Europe as a drug by appealing to the science of the humors, or essential bodily fluids.

“Humoralism”, a theory of health and illness inherited from Hippocrates and Galen, was still influential in 1630. It held that the body was composed of four essential liquids: black bile, blood, yellow bile, and phlegm. Each humor echoed one of the four elements of nature—earth, air, fire, and water—and exhibited particular properties that changed the body’s disposition: black bile was cold and dry, blood was hot and wet, yellow bile felt hot and dry, and phlegm made the body cold and wet. Balanced together, they maintained the healthy functioning of an organism. When the balance among them tipped and one occurred in excess, it produced symptoms of what we now call “disease” in the body. While common European pharmaceuticals had long been classified as essentially cooling or heating, cacao presented both hot and cold characteristics. Later treatises faced the same conundrum regarding coffee. Depending on how it was administered/ingested, hot chocolate’s curative effects also crisscrossed the humoral categories in unexpected ways.

On the surface, its combinations of effects did not make intuitive sense to Europeans, and in practice, threatened to wreak havoc among the self-medicated, à la Madame de Sévigné. By applying the dominant theory of the body to chocolate’s uncommon powers — was it sorcery, magic, alchemy? — Colmenero endeavored to make its mystery at least debatable in terms readily accessible across the countries of Western Europe.

Colmenero was educated, a doctor and surgeon well traveled including the West Indies where cocoa grew, his Tratado (treaty) remained an important reference in the early history of writing on hot beverages. and its also where we find the very first recipe for hot chocolate on the Continent to the delight of the less educated who encountered his expertise in a cup.

 

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