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The History of Chocolate in New England

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The new exhibit is on Unity Street, which runs between the Paul Revere Mall (pictured) and the Old North Church.

The new exhibit is on Unity Street, which runs between the Paul Revere Mall (pictured) and the Old North Church.

A close-up of the grinding process. It's surprising how quicly those hard little nibs melt over heat, but they have a very high cocoa butter content.

A close-up of the grinding process. It's surprising how quicly those hard little nibs melt over heat, but they have a very high cocoa butter content.

The nibs could then be worked over a heated stone grinder like this to release the cocoa liqueur from the nibs.

The nibs could then be worked over a heated stone grinder like this to release the cocoa liqueur from the nibs.

Looking up at the Old North Church steeple where, on Paul Revere's word, patriots hung two lanterns to warn the Charlestown troops that the British army was on the move.

Looking up at the Old North Church steeple where, on Paul Revere's word, patriots hung two lanterns to warn the Charlestown troops that the British army was on the move.

The cacao beans are then roasted to deepen the flavor. In Colonial days, this was done in shallow pans like these.

The cacao beans are then roasted to deepen the flavor. In Colonial days, this was done in shallow pans like these.

The brittle beans would then be transferred to a sort of threshing basket called a winnower, which would remove the shells and break the brittle bean down into cacao nibs like these.

The brittle beans would then be transferred to a sort of threshing basket called a winnower, which would remove the shells and break the brittle bean down into cacao nibs like these.

Each chocolate house would add its own proprietary blend of spices and flavorings to the liqueur, including vanilla, cinnamon, orange peel, chile flakes, nutmeg, and annatto.

Each chocolate house would add its own proprietary blend of spices and flavorings to the liqueur, including vanilla, cinnamon, orange peel, chile flakes, nutmeg, and annatto.

Grated chocolate could then be added to hot water in a chocolate pot, which came with a wooden stirrer (also known as a molinet or a molinillo). Rolling or rubbing the stick between your palms whisked the chocolate into the water.

Grated chocolate could then be added to hot water in a chocolate pot, which came with a wooden stirrer (also known as a molinet or a molinillo). Rolling or rubbing the stick between your palms whisked the chocolate into the water.

You can purchase 18th Century-style chocolate, produced by Mars, at the exhibit. It has rich chocolate flavor with warm spice and floral undertones.

You can purchase 18th Century-style chocolate, produced by Mars, at the exhibit. It has rich chocolate flavor with warm spice and floral undertones.

Chocolate is made from the beans that grow in pods like these. Cacao trees can grow only in the tropics, more specifically within twenty degrees of the equator. Fresh pods come in shades of yellow, orange, red, and purple, but they are fermented and dried on the plantations and shipped in this form. The fermentation process develops the fruit flavors that are a signature of good chocolate.

Chocolate is made from the beans that grow in pods like these. Cacao trees can grow only in the tropics, more specifically within twenty degrees of the equator. Fresh pods come in shades of yellow, orange, red, and purple, but they are fermented and dried on the plantations and shipped in this form. The fermentation process develops the fruit flavors that are a signature of good chocolate.

The finished product.

The finished product.

A closeup of the wooden stirrer.

A closeup of the wooden stirrer.

Sugar, which came in the form of cones or loaves, was very expensive and so was used sparingly.

Sugar, which came in the form of cones or loaves, was very expensive and so was used sparingly.

With sugar and spices added, the chocolate could now be molded into blocks and left to harden.

With sugar and spices added, the chocolate could now be molded into blocks and left to harden.

We all know about the story of tea in Boston. And coffee truly came into vogue after 1773, when it was drunk both as a stimulant and a protest against British taxation. But I had no idea that chocolate, or rather drinking chocolate, has an equally long history in North America.

Did you know there were chocolate houses in Boston around 1700? Historians have located shipping records from the late 1600s detailing imports of chocolate beans from Jamaica, and a 1773 ship’s manifest lists a shipment of 320 tons of cocoa beans. That’s enough to make 32 million cups of chocolate. Bonbons and brownies came later, but it turns out that chocolate was a source of pleasure for the seemingly abstemious Puritans.

I learned all this at a wonderful new exhibit called “Captain Jackson’s Colonial Chocolate Shop” in the  Clough House at the Old North Church in Boston (it’s the building located behind the church on Unity Street).  It’s named after Captain Newark Jackson, a member of the congregation and merchant who owned a chocolate shop on the North End waterfront around 1740. For the cost of an at-will donation, visitors can learn about the history and craft of chocolate and then taste a sample of drinking chocolate similar to the kind served in Colonial America. And who wouldn’t love a shot of good chocolate in the middle of a long day on the Freedom Trail?

The exhibit is sponsored by The Freedom Trail Foundation and Mars, the giant chocolate manufacturer in Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania (and makers of Mars bars and other sugary treats). Turns out the Mars family includes some history buffs, and they have funded exhibits like these at Colonial Williamsburg and at Fort Ticonderoga in upstate New York to educate the public and encourage research into early American foodways. The Old North Church gets to keep both the donations and the proceeds from the sale of the American Heritage chocolate products.

To get a taste of the exhibit and learn how chocolate was made in the 18th century, take a look at the gallery above.

You can visit from April 13-June 15 on weekends only from 11 a.m. – 5:30 p.m. From June 16 through October, the exhibit will be open daily from 11 a.m. – 5:30 p.m.

The address is 21 Unity Street. For more information, call 617-523-6676.

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