The origins of chocolate are in South America, where the Olmec and Mayan cultures prized the cocoa beans from the cocoa tree (Theobroma Cacao). They were ground up and made into a drink – often with other spices such as Chilli, Sapote seeds, and pepper... a bitter, savoury drink, drunk by the aristocrats and society’s elite. Although we are much more accustomed to a sweeter chocolate flavour, Davenport’s Chocolates still use some of these spices. Our chilli buttonettes, for example, are tiny droplets of rich dark, chocolate infused with chilli. As chocolate is one of the only foods in the world that melts at body temperature, the chilli buttonettes both warm and cool your mouth simultaneously, giving an extraordinary sensation. This is because the thermal reaction of the chocolate melting cools your senses – whilst the chilli spice provides warmth to the palette.
Cocoa beans were of great worth in early civilisations. They changed hands for food, livestock or land as the most common form of currency. It was only the very wealthy who could afford to drink away their money as an extravagant chocolate drink! The Aztec Emperor Montezuma II is considered to be one of the wealthiest men that ever lived, with royal coffers that contained an estimated 960 million beans. (To put this into context, it is thought that 100 cocoa beans would have been the price of a human slave).
Cocoa beans reached Europe in the sixteenth century, brought back to Spain by adventurers and travellers. However, the flavour was considered unsavoury and bitter to the European palate, and initially cocoa beans were hailed as having only medicinal attributes by physicians of the time. They were prescribed to aid the function of the spleen, the digestive system, to increase fertility and resistance to colds/flu. It was also considered to enhance brainpower and relieve depression. The trace elements of caffeine and serotonin would have contributed to some of these benefits, and currently one of the most beneficial characteristics of chocolate is to help sufferers of Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT) as it can thin the blood.
The cocoa bean soon became desirable for its flavour, however, and with the addition of sugar, ‘hot chocolate’ became popular throughout Europe. ‘Chocolate Houses’ grew up in towns and villages before the arrival of ‘coffee shops’, and in Spain it was common for the aristocrats to have ‘chocolate-makers’ come to prepare hot chocolate for them in their house each morning!
A 'Conche' machine, smoothing chocolate via a piston and roller.
Various European countries all made different contributions to the progress of the unique product that we now know as chocolate, as the cocoa bean reached Italy, France, and England in the 1600s.
Since 50% of the cocoa bean is cocoa butter, a hot drink made from the pure roasted bean would become greasy as soon as it cooled. In the past, starch would have been used to absorb this, or the oil may have been skimmed off the surface. However, in 1828, a Dutchman called Van Houten discovered the use of a hydraulic press to separate the cocoa butter from the remaining dry content of the bean – the cocoa powder. For the first time, a drink could be made with the chocolate flavour from the cocoa powder, without the greasy element of the cocoa butter. Van Houten’s company have been renowned for their hot chocolate ever since, and are still producing cocoa powder to this day.
Throughout most of its history, the cocoa bean has been roasted and ground to be used as a drink. The next major development occurred in Britain, and changed this forever. In 1846, Fry’s chocolate factory in Bristol first combined cocoa powder, cocoa butter and sugar in the correct proportions to produce a solid bar. Using a Watt’s Steam Engine to grind the beans was also a major innovation. Two years later, Cadbury’s were producing a similar product. A rich period of development of ‘solid’ chocolate occurred throughout Europe during the Industrial Revolution, and mechanisation finally brought chocolate to the ‘masses’.
In Switzerland, Daniel Peter created the first milk chocolate bar in 1875, using powdered milk, an invention developed by Henri Nestlé. A fellow Swiss, Rudolph Lindt developed the conching machine, which kneads the chocolate for hours under heavy rollers to eliminate the ‘graininess’ and allow any acidic aromas to evaporate. The friction melts and grinds the chocolate to such a smooth texture that the particles are imperceptible to the human mouth, which resulted in the first experience of fine chocolate.
Each country enjoyed the creative opportunity of developing chocolate in different ways; the Italians became renowned for using hazelnuts with chocolate. The French and the Belgians developed how to make sophisticated truffles and pralines. The Belgian approach to chocolate making was to create moulds of chocolate, and pipe the fillings inside. The Swiss method involved making the centres first, and then ‘dipping’ (or enrobing) them in chocolate afterwards.
Any successful chocolatier today builds on these foundations – a rich heritage of innovation and discovery. And the current chapter is no less exciting...
Edit: yeah, it was fun taking this shot.
Although not an organized movement, the last two decades have seen a revolution in the chocolate scene. Large scale chocolate manufacturers and small artisan chocolatiers are offering chocolate sourced from specific countries, a choice of various cocoa concentrations (% cocoa solids) and combining chocolate with imaginative and creative flavours. Chocolate has even been labelled the ‘new wine’, since consumer appreciation of chocolate is increasing in a similar way to the 1980s wine renaissance. The comparisons are considerable, as the climate, soil, environment, tree species and harvest are all factors affecting the character of the cocoa beans and thus the flavour of the chocolate.
Chocolate is a fascinating subject, and there have been claims that there are between 300 and 600 chemical components in the cocoa bean, making it one of the most complex foods in the world. Research institutions have been set up since the beginning of the 20th century, such as the Cocoa Research Unit (CRU) in Trinidad which dates back to the Cocoa Research Scheme in 1930.
But some of the major breakthroughs we can see today were launched by some key players in the chocolate industry over 20 years ago. For example, the French company Valrhona produced one of the first single origin chocolate bars in 1985. Instead of chocolate made from a blend of any cocoa beans from around the world, this was one of the first instances in which the characteristic flavours from a single location could be distinguished. Today we can buy chocolate made from the beans from different countries, and even individual plantations. Generally, cocoa from Africa has an intense, bitter, earthy flavour, whereas cocoa from South America is likely to be more delicate with fruity or floral undertones. To distinguish the wonderful, subtle, individual flavours of different cocoa beans, do take time to test your palate on chocolate bars made from beans from specific plantations or countries.
Another company with a rich chocolate heritage, Lindt of Switzerland, pioneered another interesting concept in 1989. They produced a chocolate bar with 70% cocoa solids, using a higher concentration of cocoa to make chocolate with a much stronger and richer flavour. This became a mainstream concept very quickly, as it was a very obvious way for chocolate connoisseurs to choose a better grade of chocolate. It helped to highlight the fact that a lot of chocolate is overloaded with sugar. As different ‘concentrations’ of chocolate came into the market, people could also choose a level that suited their palate. However, it is a misconception that chocolate with a higher percentage of cocoa solids is a better product. No-one would choose a wine because it has a higher percentage of alcohol, and likewise chocolate should not be chosen in this way – it also depends on the quality and origin of the cocoa bean.
Another comparison with wine was investigated by Valrhona, this time producing chocolate from a specific harvest in 1998. Thus ‘vintages’ of chocolate could be enjoyed, with the potential of being able to distinguish the characteristics of each season. This area has not been widely developed yet, but it demonstrates yet another aspect of the recent chocolate revolution.
Davenport's Chocolates vintage enrober.
The UK has had a varied chocolate career. The successful innovations during the industrial revolution for Fry’s, Cadbury’s and Rowntree’s, somewhat set the scene for the future of chocolate in the UK. Large scale, mechanized chocolate production dominated the market, making low cost chocolates accessible for everybody. Hence the UK usually consumes one of the highest amounts of chocolate per capita in Europe each year. It has also resulted in the UK not having had much of a reputation for fine, high quality chocolate over the last century.
However, this has been changing since the 1990s, and a growing number of small chocolate makers have taken up the cause of raising the chocolate bar! Davenport’s Chocolates are one of the British artisan producers working creatively in this field today. Artisan chocolatiers develop skills and knowledge that allow the use of creativity in making chocolates by hand. They know the techniques that have been passed down from previous generations, and strive to build upon this rich chocolate heritage. They apply the science of chocolate with a creative artistry to produce new and unique flavours – and are often the forerunners of trends which are later taken up by mass-producers.
Jane Williams (Head Chocolatier & Co-Founder of Davenport’s Chocolates) was one of the chocolatiers to bring artisan skills onto the UK chocolate scene, starting up the business with her husband Michael in 2007. However, her chocolate journey began 7 years previous, as she spent 7 years learning artisanal skills of chocolate making from Swiss Master Chocolatier Philippe Burger. This enabled her to continue traditions and techniques that had been passed down the generations, adding a rich depth of experience and heritage to Davenport’s Chocolates today.
Building on research throughout Europe, and a classical Swiss training, Jane now directs her flair and passion towards making chocolates that celebrate this heritage. You may notice that there are several ‘old fashioned’ recipes that appear in her chocolate boxes. Those are a way of cherishing and preserving recipes that delighted previous generations. However, you will also find the joy of creating and experimenting with new ideas and flavours, designed to put a big smile on your face as you share them with others.
There are now many small chocolatiers dotted all around the UK, as well of course as the highly successful Hotel Chocolat. As a country, we have a much better chocolate offering than just a few decades ago. Try and find the small independent chocolate businesses that put their heart and soul into what they create. We all really appreciate your continued support! Our hope will be that you will find wonderful chocolates that you love at Davenport’s Chocolates, and that you will enjoy gifting them to others.