Hampton Court Palace.
Thomas Tosier is pounding roasted cacao beans to a paste on a hot granite slab. He is wearing full periwig, breeches and a long waistcoat. The slab has taken an hour and a half to heat up but that’s nothing to the 30-odd hours it will take to grind the beans to sticky perfection. It’s all in several days’ work when you’re channelling George I’s personal chocolatier.
After nearly 300 years languishing as a store room, Hampton Court’s chocolate kitchen is open for business once more and the palace’s doughty experimental archaeologists are discovering what it’s like to make a mug of cocoa wearing a wig.
When your palace has sixteen hundred rooms, it’s easy to mislay the odd chocolate kitchen. “People used to point and say ‘Oh it was over there somewhere,” says Marc Meltonville, food historian at Hampton Court, “but no one knew for sure.”
The palace was first opened to the public by the Victorians who told all sorts of ‘legends’ to a sensation-hungry public. “It’s when most of the ghosts turned up,” admits Meltonville. When the food historians decided to see if there was any truth in the rumours, they knew the much-mentioned chocolate kitchen could just be 19th Century hype. Even if it had existed, many buildings had been demolished over the years or lost in the 1986 fire.
The team’s lucky break was an inventory made after the death of William III. The clerk had started in one corner of Fountain Court and worked his way round. Door Eight in the cloister-like passageway led to Chocolate Nirvana. “I’d seen a spit shelf in there,” says Meltonville, “so I’d assumed it was a kitchen of some sort, but then there were dozens of tiny kitchens all over the place.” Nevertheless a key was found for the mysterious Door Eight.
“I’ve never seen so much oasis,’ says Polly Putnam, curator of the project. “Racks, pots, steel shelves. It was like walking into a florist’s without the flowers.” For years the room had been piled high with equipment for the annual flower show. No one had bothered to delve more deeply than to fetch a few vases for prize begonias.
The team emptied it intending to reconstruct a generic 18th Century chocolatier’s workshop but as the debris disappeared it became clear this was not the blank room they’d expected. “We’d actually found a kitchen,” says Marc Meltonville.
Everything was intact. The charcoal fireplace where the beans would have been roasted, complete with elaborate spit mechanism and smoke-jack operating system (inside the chimney, but with a clever projected display so visitors can see how it worked); Georgian shelves and a cupboard where equipment was stored; a brick stove over which the chocolate would have been heated and, to everyone’s surprise, the original fold-down prep-table, still firmly fixed to the wall.
Coffee houses were all the rage in bourgeois London in the 18th Century, attracting everyone from businessmen and merchants to courtesans and rakes. Tea drinking was hugely popular too but for the super-well-heeled chocolate was the apogee of classy beverages. Charles II started the trend in the 1660s. William III and Georges I and II all used the chocolate kitchen at Hampton Court.
Thomas Tosier was George I’s personal chocolate chef. “He would have provided the whole package,” says Marc Meltonville, “no one in London had chocolate like his.” Tosier would have roasted and ground the beans, extracted spice oils, invented and adjusted flavours then served his confections in a variety of exquisite glasses, cups and bowls.
Tosier became famous, though his wife Grace was even more of a celebrity, admired not just for her chocolate but her gloves, hat and full bosom. After her husband’s death she remarried, but kept the Tosier brand, opening up an exclusive chocolate house in Greenwich.
The suite of rooms given over to Tosier are much daintier in feel than the classic 16th Century kitchens Hampton Court visitors are familiar with. “It was the introduction of elegance after all the meat, pies and production-line cookery of the Tudor palace,” says Polly Putnam.
The nearby Chocolate Room has the feel of a butler’s pantry. It once housed the expensive ingredients and delicate serving apparatus. Today it has been brought to life with exquisite reproductions made for the project. Fancy glasses, bottles and dishes have been hand-blown from a 17th Century glass recipe; porcelain posset pots and porringers recreated from fragments unearthed from various digs at the palace.
Chocolate pots (distinguishable from coffee pots by the hole in the top for a whisk) and ‘chocolate frames’ – metal saucers for handle-less cups – have been made from pewter, a popular metal in Georgian times, though the King’s own vessels would have been gold or silver.
The kitchen is a particularly lucky survivor as the room opposite, just yards away, was destroyed in the 1986 fire. This, however, has meant curators have been able to create an exact replica of the kitchen for the resident ‘historic chefs’ to discover exactly how the various monarchs enjoyed their cocoa.
Much of this will take place in front of visitors, giving a unique experience of how the process worked and, in Hampton Court’s trademark style, will be in full costume to find out how the clothes would have affected production.
“I am keen to get experimenting with oils,” says Marc Meltonville, who has been researching dozens of original recipes. “I want to use chilli, Jamaica pepper, Guinea pepper and aniseed. You can grind them up and mix them with water, but infusing them in oil will improve the flavour.”
The chocolate would have been melted with water, milk, wine or other alcohol then, unlike its savoury South American ancestors, mixed with sugar and exotic spices such as vanilla, cardamom, aniseed, ‘Grain of Paradise and ‘Roses of Alexandria’.
The earliest recipes date from the Stuart period. One, ‘The King’s Chocolate’, is the first of four ‘tasters’ visitors can try on a flight of historic chocolate cups in the Fountain Court café. From a 1661 publication called The India Nectar, which purports to divulge the secret of ‘how the natives do it’ in the Americas the flavour is dark, dense and with a complex melange of spices that linger on the tongue.
Hans Sloane first put milk into chocolate around 1700 and the second sample is a Georgian style drink, with overtones of aniseed. The third is a classic Victorian recipe, very similar to modern hot chocolate and, after the darkness of the previous two drinks, rather sweet and sickly. The last item on the chocolate tasting menu has been designed by today’s palace chefs, reflecting a modern style. Made from vanilla-infused white chocolate, which uses only cocoa butter, rather than beans, and with a dried raspberry garnish it is a very different drink, sweet and aromatic.
Hampton Court’s chocolate kitchen, the only surviving example of its kind, is no longer a legend whispered by sweet-toothed romantics, but Marc Meltonville is not done yet. He’s got his eye on a locked engine room a few doors down from the freshly-found chocolate haven. He suspects it was a wine cellar, though until he can find a key, it will remain a mystery. The palace has not yielded all its secrets just yet.
Hampton Court’s Georgian Chocolate Kitchens are open to the public as part of the entry price. Dates and times for live chocolate making sessions can be found at www.hrp.org.uk. Historic chocolate taster-flights are available from the Fountain Court café, priced £3.95