Joseph Fry. Credit.
It might go without saying, but Britain has some chocolate to be proud of. The likes of Cadbury, Galaxy and Mars have propelled the British chocolate-making industry to world renown. But just how far has British chocolate come from how it all started out?
Chocolate is a 4,000 year-old delicacy with, as some scientists have claimed, traces of its origin in modern day Mexico. In the 1500s, Spain was the first country to bring drinking chcocolate into Europe, though initially it was a rich commodity that for a time only reached the lips of royal and wealthy aristocrats. The French followed suit when drinking chocolate was introduced throughout the French court before, in the 1700s, the British started dipping their toes.
Though drinking chocolate was still exclusively drunk by those that could afford it, the beverage quickly grew in popularity and started replacing coffee as the drink of choice in many a London establishment. Dr Henry Stubbs, a physician of the time, began to advocate the drink as a way of soothing strong emotions such as lust, melancholy, and pining.
It was only until the 19th century that chocolate was solely in liquid form as, in 1828, a Dutchman by the name of Conrad van Houten came up with the idea of a coca press, whereby a chocolate liquor was created by grinding roasted cocoa beans before it could then be made into a solid.
The Brits were among the first to take the cocoa press in their stride. William Cadbury successfully upped the ante by opening a large factory in Birmingham, and received venerable praise from Queen Victoria. The queen was so certain of chocolate’s life-enriching qualities that she sent half a million lbs. of the stuff to the army. Meanwhile, Britain’s Joseph Fry created the world’s first chocolate bar before officially supplying the navy and becoming the largest manufacturer of chocolate on the planet.
Interestingly, many of those involved in the production and proliferation of chocolate around this time were Quakers. They thought they could replace the nation’s addiction towards alcohol by injecting vast quantities of chocolate into the mainstream. And for a large part they succeeded.
So early intentions were good, but the British chocolate industry saw darker times. Slavery was abolished in the British Isles in 1834, but before that time foreign plantations were squeezing workers to help cope with the demand for cocoa. Many other nations did not introduce acts to get rid of slavery until later, and still heavily relied on free workers to cultivate their cacao. Even today, Ivory Coast, the world’s largest exporter of cocoa, forces children into working on cocoa farms.
Back to rosier things, Britain has enjoyed manufacturing chocolate that has become the envy among foreign populaces. Despite the lofty status of Britain’s mass-market chocolate, the nation’s artisan creations often go unnoticed. Last year’s World Chocolate Awards for example was dominated by the likes of France, Italy, and Ecuador, with barely any representation from British makers.
Things, however, aren’t quite so bad when you look at the quality of domestic competition. Casting a glance over the winners of the Academy of Chocolate awards – one of Britain’s leading authorities on chocolate – one name continues to crop up year after year.
William Curley, often deemed an artist in the chocolate world, has since the early 2000s come up with sweet creations from traditional cups of hot chocolate – a nod to the origins of the chocolate industry – to outlandish desserts revered by Michelin star chefs. His career is a stern reflection of how British chocolate making has come to be, and gives the nation something to boast about, even if there’s a Belgian and a Swiss in the room.