I have a confession to make: I love a good cup of really bitter cocoa, the plain dark kind with no marshmallows. So you can imagine how pleased I was when I heard that Michael Portillo wanted to bring his Great British Railway Journeys program to York and wanted me to show him how to make authentic Rowntree’s cocoa.
There’s just one problem: he wanted to know how to make 1860s-style Rowntree’s cocoa, and Rowntree’s cocoa at around this time wasn’t like everyone else’s.
Early English drinking chocolate, the drinking chocolate of the Georgian chocolate houses, was a rich, dark delight, stirred vigorously with a swizzle stick in a fat-bottomed chocolate pot shaped specially for the purpose. I have tasted authentic Georgian-style chocolate (mine was prepared by the eminent food historian Dr Annie Gray) and it was really very palatable. Annie added some flavourings to the drink to give it that extra zing, but it would have been just as good plain.
Why, then, was drinking cocoa Michael Portillo made with me so different? It was thin, watery, and gritty; nothing like the glorious soup of the early London chocolate houses. Well, part of the problem was that I was too polite to tell Michael that he hadn’t worked hard enough to grind the beans into a liquid, that makes a big difference; but Rowntree’s Iceland Moss Cocoa (that was what we were trying to recreate) was still not the decadent beverage of the eighteenth century.
The recipe which we worked to as part of the show was a simple one: cocoa ground in a pestle and mortar à la John Cadbury (a shade earlier than the 1860s, but we didn’t have a Victorian grinder), and some powdered Iceland moss (a favoured ingredient of Henry Rowntree – although I don’t recommend consuming it in large quantities).
Victorian Grinder: This might have been better than a pestle and mortar
Rowntree recommended that about a teaspoon of cocoa (the same weight as a sixpence) was enough for a cup of water. Michael complained that this beverage looked like puddle water and was full of bits which he had to strain through his teeth. What I didn’t like to tell him at the time was a bit more elbow grease and the cocoa might have been a bit more soluble and he wouldn’t have found it full of gritty bits. Heating the beans while grinding them might not have hurt either, encouraging the fat to be expressed from the beans, but even with this we would still have discovered the same thing: if you follow H. I. Rowntree’s early recipes, drinking cocoa is a bit weak and pale.
To make cocoa the beans have to be roasted, have their shells removed, and then be broken into little bits like a biscuit that has been knocked about in a polythene bag. These little bits are then ground down, and the act of grinding the beans (with a little bit of added heat) helps to release the cocoa fat inherent in the bean and creates a dark, bitter paste (or liquid if you’ve done a really good job).
Cocoa Pod: The raw material
But the early Quaker chocolate manufacturers seem to have employed deliberately primitive methods to make a very different product; John Cadbury ground his cocoa beans in the back of his shop, according to Deborah Cadbury, with nothing more than a mortar and pestle (that’s why we used one as part of the program). In fact, Deborah Cadbury describes this Quaker-style drinking chocolate as a “fatty, lumpy gruel”.
Quaker-style cocoa was often mixed with potato flour, sago, wheat flour or some other starchy substance to try to mop up the fats that could seperate to the surface. This begs the question: what happened between the cocoa houses of the 18th century, and the smaller-scale Quaker manufacturers of the mid-nineteenth? Why did rich cocoa become gruel?
Well, one of the problems was the difference between making cocoa to be drunk fresh, and making something for a consumer to prepare at home. In a chocolate house the server can stir up the cocoa to keep the fat from separating on the surface, but in pre-packaged cocoa you can’t control how the product is presented to the consumer; this was probably one reason for adding flours to Quaker-style cocoa, it soaked up the fat. Another reason may have been taste; the process of removing astringent, vinegary chemicals called volatiles from the cocoa by conching hadn’t yet been invented, and additives may have been to take the edge off that astringency. However, I think the biggest motivation will have been the Victorian health-kick; the idea that adding moss to cocoa will do you some good. The Quakers had turned a treat into a medicine, and it needed to taste like one.
Healthfood: Rowntree's promoted their product as a healthfood
So what do we know about Rowntree’s cocoa in the 1860s? Well, we know that Henry Isaac Rowntree acquired the cocoa business as a young man in 1862, and we know that his business was going so badly in 1869 that his big brother Jospeh had to join it to prevent bankruptcy. This at least tells us that Henry’s products were not a run-away success. According to his own promotional material he recommended, at one point, that a pot of his cocoa be made by boiling the cocoa in water for two hours; no good can come of boiling cocoa in water for two hours.
So what changed? It seems that Henry’s brother Joseph realised that they didn’t understand how to make cocoa; they needed new workers and particularly a foreman who knew how to make the product. Joseph went down to London and placed this advertisement in the London newspapers:
To cocoa and chocolate makers,
A FOREMAN who
Thoroughly understands the manufacture
Of Rock and other Cocoas, confection
And other chocolates.
Also several WORKMEN used to the trade.
Good hands will be liberally dealt with.
Rock Cocoa: Rowntree's additive-free beverage
Rowntree then found himself somewhere to stay in London and went about learning everything he could about the manufacturing practices of his competitors by interviewing their workers and paying them for cocoa-making secrets. Rowntree hired a few new staff this way, but then spread his net further afield and began interviewing employees of his big Quaker competitors over in Bristol and Birmingham (you can read more about this in James Walvin’s book The Quakers: Money and Morals). It seems that Joseph Rowntree realised that they needed to ‘up their game’ and re-learn how to make cocoa with a new staff who knew what they were doing. The following decades saw a complete transformation, until Rowntree’s cocoa was arguably the best drinking cocoa in the market place.
Technology played a large part in their journey to a better product. Conching, the Dutch alkalizing process, the hydraulic press, even the new factory buildings all helped to turn their factory around and make them one of the largest cocoa businesses in the empire.
The York factory site still processes cocoa today, and processes it to a very high standard. We use stone grinders which capture something of the original process of the Mesoamericans who used heated stone metates to make their cocoa. This same cocoa goes into some of the biggest-selling chocolates in the world, but without a hint of Iceland moss.