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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 RareCooking.com
(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:
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.
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.
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)
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)
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.
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)