There’s been much development in Britons’ opinion of chocolate over the last few years. Tastes are changing; gourmet chocolate shops are popping up all over London and we are getting a taste for dark, high cocoa content. In fact, it seems the darker the better. These are far off the days when we were obsessed with a cheeky Curly Wurly or a huge slab of Dairy Milk. Not so long ago, chocolate was considered one of the unhealthiest snacks possible, but it seems we don’t judge it quite so harshly these days. Whilst the sales of sugary milk chocolates are dipping, gourmet dark chocolates, eaten in small quantities are on the rise, even to the point of them being considered a healthy option. And it wouldn’t be the first time. When chocolate originally arrived on our shores, it was considered a healthy superfood. Is it on its way back up the health charts again?
All over Europe, people have been obsessed with chocolate ever since it was introduced from the New World in the 16thcentury. It was a Frenchman who first put it on general sale in London, in the form of a drink. He opened a chocolate house in the East End in 1657 and, after promoting it as a healthy beverage, Londoners were pouring in through the doors and simply couldn’t get enough. He marketed it as an exotic health food that would solve many a problem – it would help digestion, reverse ageing, cure a hangover and was even a rather potent aphrodisiac. “Sign us up!” said London.
It reached a broader audience through coffee houses, a haunt of London’s intelligentsia, where a new recipe took off. It was made to be less bitter by adding milk, which also made it cheaper. As time passed, typical Brits, we butchered the recipe more and more. I’m sure the French were tutting away, as we chucked in some eggs, added a bit of cinnamon, tried a bit of vanilla and then doused it with sugar. These recipe changes were spearheaded by a man named Sir Hans Sloane, who became obsessed with chocolate on a trip to Jamaica. And, once he’d made it more popular with all the milk and all the sugar, alas, those health benefits seemed to somewhat dwindle.
Chocolate was first produced as a bar in 1847 by Joseph Fry and this is where the mass popularity of chocolate began. The most expensive ingredient in Britain was cocoa, so the reduced cocoa mass and added milk and sugar, made the product cheaper and cheaper. London’s oldest surviving chocolate brand is Charbonnel et Walker, which holds the Royal Warrant and is the Queen’s personal favourite. They’ve been producing a huge range of interesting flavour combinations since 1875. They make dark, milk and white chocolates, but, their most popular recent concoction is the Marc de Champagne truffle – with a very sweet, pale pink coating. I guess we’re not all in love with the new healthy bitter chocolate trend then!
If you’d like to have a walk around London and muse on our mixed relationship with the sweet stuff and changing tastes in chocolate throughout history, why not head to Chelsea Physic Garden near The King’s Road? This botanical garden was built on land donated by Sir Hans Sloane, the man who popularised milk chocolate in London. Then, after all that thinking, you probably deserve to stop off in Rococo’s first shop on The King’s Road for a few healthy, or not so healthy, samples.
Look out over the Thames at low tide and you’ll spot something that gives a real insight into the foodie history of our great city: oyster shells. Londoners have been munching away on oysters for nearly 2000 years, ever since the Romans introduced us to the custom. Today they may be considered a dish for the wealthy, but this wasn’t always the case, and these discarded shells tell the story of London’s original working man’s street food.
The Roman capital of England was Camulodunum, now Colchester. Here, the Romans began to farm oysters. Indeed, they enjoyed English oysters so much, they would even pack them in ice and ship them back to Rome as gifts. A British Roman seaside delicacy, you know, an old school version of a … stick of rock. Today, Colchester and Mersea oysters continue to be considered amongst the finest in the world. On my Secret History of Street Food walk, we visit Richard Haward, a seventh generation oysterman from Mersea, who brings oysters and clams to London every day. We sample some of his delicious wares by stopping in at his stall in Borough Market.
Perhaps, for most, the image conjured up by oysters is that of the glamorous 1920s. The young, trendy crowd using oysters and champagne to fuel their parties and their libidos. Indeed, Cassanova ate 50 oysters every day for breakfast. However, oysters weren’t always the food of the rich. Until as recently as the mid-19thcentury, they were in plentiful supply in the Thames and were easy to farm, so, they were very cheap. They were eaten as snacks on the riverside, their shells serving as handy little plates. As more and more industrial waste began pouring into the river, it became increasingly polluted, which saw the oyster population begin to dwindle. Later, during the World Wars, when beaches were often off limits and many boats were taken to be used in the war effort, the oyster beds were no longer tended to. Oysters became rarer, pricier and… what do you know? Suddenly more fashionable!
Today, oyster numbers have increased again and are gaining in popularity and not just at champagne parties. If you’ve never risked one, I’d highly recommend you give them a try. Native oysters are better eaten in cooler months (September to April), which is when they thrive. There’s also a non-native oyster in British seas called a rock oyster, which can be enjoyed all year round. So, how do you eat one? Well, generally a small squeeze of lemon juice or a little splash of shallot vinegar will help to bring out the flavour, and they should be chewed. It’s all very simple. But if you’re still not sure, perhaps you should join my Secret History of Street Food tour and we can try a Mersea oyster together. And you can trust me… I’m a Colchester girl myself.