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Coffee, tea, and chocolate may be regular items in the daily lives of the English today, but for Shakespeare these items were not on the everyday menu. In fact, drinking coffee or tea was seen with much superstition and hesitancy. While Shakespeare does mention “one poor penny worth of sugar-candy” in Henry V, he would not have been talking about chocolate. Confections like chocolate and drinking tea, along with coffee houses, would not become normal in England until after Shakespeare died in 1616. However, what we can see about these items in Shakespeare’s lifetime is the process of caffeine arriving in England. It is during Shakespeare’s lifetime that coffee, tea, and chocolate was this exotic sample of foreign lands being brought to Europe by various explorers and trading companies. Here today to share with us the history of coffee, tea, and chocolate and where they were at on their journey from obscurity to popular everyday kitchen staple is our guest, Elisa Tersigni. 

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Elisa Tersigni is a postdoctoral fellow at the Women Writers Project at Northeastern University. She is currently writing a book on early modern European cooking traditions and how they incorporated new, global foodstuffs–foods like chocolate and coffee–that were perceived as desirable but potentially dangerous. 

Connect with Elisa:

I’ll be asking Elisa Tersigni about:

  • Are there any records of when coffee was first introduced to England?
  • In the late 17th century, I believe around the 1660s, Henry Stubbs wrote a book titled “The Indian Nectar, or a discourse on chocolate.” Elisa, is Henry Stubbs writing about hot chocolate here, and would Shakespeare have known about this drink? 
  • Tea is almost synonymous with British in terms of images we think of when we think of England, in particular, but would Shakespeare have known what tea was during his lifetime?
  • …and more!

Try this recipe for Early Modern Hot Chocolate from
(Thank you, Elisa, for sharing with us!)

  • 1/4 cup cocoa nibs
  • 3.5 ounces (approx 1/3 cup) of 70% dark chocolate bark
  • 1/2 cup cocoa powder
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1/4 cup breadcrumbs or grated stale bread (optional)
  • 1/2 chili flakes (or cinnamon for less spicy)
  • 1 cup milk, or milk alternative

Combine all ingredients into food processor and blend until powdery and quite chocolatey. Heat milk and pour powder into milk, mix to combine. Enjoy!

Books and Resources You Can Use to Learn More:

Elisa Tersigni’s article for Folger Shakespeare Library about Coffee and Tea

History of Coffee and How it Arrived in England during the 10-17th Centuries

A 1652 handbill advertising coffee for sale in St. Michael’s Alley, London. It is held in the British Museum. | Public Domain | Source

Coffee was not popular in England until just after Shakespeare’s lifetime

Elisa shares with us that it is unlikely Shakespeare would have drank either coffee or tea for his lifetime, but that’s only because the social structures of the day did not support regular consumption, not because the items were wholly unknown. Coffee and tea would make their way to Europe during Shakespeare’s lifetime via the trade routes with the Ottoman Empire and primarily through Venice, Italy.

Map showing main Portuguese (blue) and Spanish (white) oceanic trade routes in the 16th century as a result of the exploration during the Age of Discovery. Showing the Spanish colonial Manila-Acapulco Galleons route (1565-1815) between the Viceroyalty of New Spain (México) and the Spanish East Indies (Philippines), using the ports of Acapulco and Cavite. | PIA03395: World in Mercator Projection, Shaded Relief and Colored Height | This is a retouched picture, which means that it has been digitally altered from its original version. Modifications: depiction of 16th century Portuguese and Spanish trade routes. The original can be viewed here: World Topography.jpg. Modifications made by Uxbona.| This image uses high-resolution digital topography data from NASA’s Shuttle Radar Topography Mission (SRTM) at JPL-Caltech It is in the public domain in the United States. | Source

Venice was commercially importing coffee by 1570, and it was considered a luxury item for the rich. Coffee would later go on to be sold in the markets, and then sold widely to the general public. Venice started their first coffee house in 1645 and by 1763 there would be hundreds of coffee establishments throughout the city.

The first mention of coffee by an Englishman (disputed) is from Reverend Edward Terry who travelled with ambassador Sir Thomas Roe to Jahangir. This quote is his description of coffee, written in 1616. Source

Outside of official trade routes, travellers and diplomats who wrote home about their missions to Muslim countries would report back on the coffee they encountered there. One letter by Gian Francesco Morosini, Venice ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, described in 1582 how people met up at public houses to hold meetings over a beverage he described at both hot and dark.

In his book, History of the Egyptian Plants, published in 1591, Paduan Prospero Alpino, writes about the coffee tree and even brought coffee back with him to Italy. (Source)

Plate ‘088av-088br’ from the Atlas Ortelius by Abraham Ortelius. Original edition from 1571 with additions from 1573, 1579 and 1584. Complete description of this work (in Dutch) On this map Turkey is shown.|Public Domain | Source

Coffee was popular across Europe and in the Mediterranean

By 1600, coffee was being traded across Europe, and England seems to be unique among countries like Italy, where coffee was much more popular. It was a staple on the Mediterranean trade routes for Shakespeare’s lifetime.

“Coffee is a surprisingly recent discovery. Yemen and Ethiopia discovered it only in the 15th century, so the first record of English coming to contact with is was written by William Bardolph, dated 1600….worked for Levant company trade from England to Ottoman Empire, and he contacted coffee in Aleppo, so not in England, so it was probably on travel to mediterranean (merchants or working in trade), where [the English] encountered coffee.”

The Ottoman Empire was a huge driver of the trade for tea and coffee. In Europe, many enjoyed Chinese tea (called “cha”), and in the late 17th century (well after Shakespeare), when Catherine of Braganza married Charles II, she brought tea with her as part of her dowry. (Source)

17th century painting of Pope Clements VIII, painted by an unknown artist. Public Domain. Source

Pope Clement VIII Gave Coffee His Blessing in the 16th century

The Catholic Church considered coffee to be “the devil’s drink” but when Pope Clements VIII tried it, he liked it so much that he said it would be ok to drink it if he blessed it first. Apparently, at least part of his reasoning there was to think coffee was less of a problem than alcohol.

A 16th-century manuscript showing a coffee-house with men drinking coffee. Reproduced in part in 1001 Inventions: Muslim Heritage in Our World, editor in chief Prof. Salim T. S. Al-Hassani (Manchester, FSTC, 2006, p. 13). Source
Miniature of a portable coffee stall dated to 1582, taken from Sürname-i Hümayun (Imperial Festival Book), where the artisans of the coffee maker/seller participating in the festival procession were depicted in great detail. Source: Nurhan Atasoy, 1582 Surname-i Hümayun: Dügün Kitabi, (Istanbul: Koçbank, 1997). Source

Coffee in England was first medicinal before it was recreational

“The coffee beans came from Mokah on the Red Sea (Yemen) imported by the East India Company and from Aleppo by the Levant Company. Its early association with England was in medical use; a two-page pamphlet by “An Arabian Physician” (Dr Edward Pococke) appeared in Oxford in 1659” (Source)

c. 1690 View of Mocha (Yemen). Part of a series of prints related to the Austrian-Ottoman war (1683–1699), and which included Mediterranean and Red Sea views as well as views of biblical places. Published c. 1690 by Antwerp-based Jacques Peeters. The etchings were done by Gaspar Bouttats, Lucas Vorstermans and Coenraad Lauwers. This particular specimen as well as the information come from the online map gallery of map seller PAULUS SWAEN. Public Domain. Source
James Lancaster, shown here in a portrait from 1596, commanded the first East India Company voyage in 1601. Unknown artist. Public Domain. Source
Painting. Court. Jahangir investing a courtier with a robe of honour watched by Sir Thomas Roe, English ambassador to the court of Jahangir at Agra from 1615-18, and others. On paper. Colophon on verso gives calligrapher’s name, As`af `Ibadallah al-Rahim and date 23 Ramadan 985/4 December 1577. Public Domain. Source
Return of the second Asia expedition of Jacob van Neck in 1599 by Cornelis Vroom | Source

Additional reading: