Chocolate Kitchens at Hampton Court Palace

Hampton Court PalaceI first met Marc Meltonville, the food historian for the Historic Royal Palaces at the Oxford Symposium of Food and Cookery in 2009 (a fascinating event if you are interested in the very geeky end of food, most of the presentations are by people who have studied food as part of a phd so are very science or research-based).  At the time he told me of how Hampton Court Palace once had a dedicated “chocolate kitchen” and invited me to visit the Tudor kitchens to see some of the old chocolate-related equipment.  I’m ashamed to say it took me four and a half years – and a follow up press invitation for the official launch of the original chocolate kitchen – to finally make good on my acceptance of the invitation and take myself to the palace today.

Last year Meltonville and his team, including curator Polly Putnam, finally uncovered a document that could tell them the precise location of the chocolate kitchen in the Hampton Court Palace.  It turned out to be a small room that was being used to hold equipment for the Hampton Court Flower Show.  They expected that once they removed the storage shelves they would have to rebuild the kitchen but were surprised to discover that key pieces, including a unique folding table and the coal stoves, were still present.

You might, like me, express some surprise that this information could only just be uncovered.  Meltonville informed us that the trouble with history of the royal palaces is less that there is not enough information but rather that there is too much.  Almost everything was written down and so there are thousands of books and papers available in the national archives on public record.  The difficulty is sifting through to find what is relevant.  This isn’t helped that the English of some periods is akin to a completely different language.  The English of the Georgian times is apparently readable without a translator, though we were informed that the odd French and German word slips in.

cocoa beans roasting in the Hampton Court chocolate kitchenThe particular piece of paper that revealed the location of the chocolate kitchen was an inventory of rooms going clockwise from the Queen’s staircase – conveniently known and still intact.  The room that is now the ladies’ bathroom was a spice storage room.  Behind door number eight: the chocolate kitchen.  Further around the building was the room where the chocolate cook to George I and George II, a Mr Thomas Tosier, would undertake the final preparations of the morning chocolate beverage before taking it personally to the King.  It was extremely unusual for a cook to personally deliver food to the royal family members and thus a position of considerable power as he would have been able to speak directly with the King.  The historians assume that Mr Tosier did little of the hard (literal!) grind of the cocoa but supervised a team.  This small room where he resided and completed the final mixing has also been renovated.  Replicas of glassware, chocolate cups, saucers and jugs line the shelves.  All were made based on pieces found in archaeological digs in the grounds, by master English craftsman using ancient methods.  The jugs and candle sticks are made of cast pewter, once one of the three noble metals and much heavier than its modern, spun version, now often sold in tacky souvenir shops.  Particularly interesting were the pewter saucers that rose up to nestle the cup so if someone knocked you the chocolate cup wouldn’t spill a precious drop.  I could probably do with one of these saucers.

The cocoa beverage that Mr Tosier made (or had made!) for the King would have been a mixture of ground, shelled cocoa beans with water, or very often milk, and then some combination of spices of which sugar was also considered a spice.  The palace has copies of ingredient order lists but the specific blend was closely guarded, quite likely because Mr Tosier also had his own shop, run by his wife in Greenwich.  Much like a celebrity chef in today’s times, Tosier and his wife capitalised on his connection with the King and Mrs Tosier had her image in newspapers, accompanied by a commentary on the clothes she was wearing.  I doubt the paparazzi were quite so intrusive then.

Spices in the cocoa drink could have included, amongst others:

  • Vanilla
  • Aniseed
  • Allspice
  • Cardamom
  • Chilli
  • Guinea Pepper (also known as “Grains of Paradise”)

spices for Georgian hot chocolateThese would have been distilled into oils before including.  As well as sugar it’s possible the “chocolate cooks” also mixed the cocoa “cakes” (the set paste of ground cocoa beans) with fortified wine and with flower and fruit essences.

Eventually it became so easy to get chocolate around town that chocolate kitchens were less common in palaces.

Hot chocolate flight at Hampton Court PalaceA neat little projected presentation accompanies the equipment and décor in the rooms and you can sample a flight of hot chocolates in the nearby café for £3.95.  This includes a version closely representing what would have been made when cocoa first arrived in England around 1665 – made just with water and including a touch of warming chilli, another water-based drink, this time featuring anise, a milky, sweeter hot chocolate that more directly mirrors modern hot chocolate and finally a sweet hot “chocolate” made just with cocoa butter, milk, vanilla, rose and orange.  They were all pleasant and definitely all interesting.  My personal preference is towards the two without milk, but I am particularly interested in picking up some Port to make my own 18th century hot chocolate at home now…

The kitchens open to the public this Friday 14th February.  Throughout the year on weekends, public holidays and school holidays there will be live chocolate making in the kitchen, though the video presentations available on other days will still be worthwhile to visit.  Tickets into Hampton Court Palace are £17.60 per adult and £8.80 per child.  It is a short walk from Hampton Court station in Zone 6, just 36 minutes from Waterloo.

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