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University internship reveals secret history of chocolate

Durham inspires      
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Who likes chocolate? It’s probably easier to ask who doesn’t like chocolate.

The popularity of the sweet treat has been celebrated recently with World Chocolate Day which honours all kinds of goodies made from the brown stuff.

If you missed the day on 7 July, there’s always time to indulge in your favourite bar, but when you do, spare a thought for chocolate’s long history and its place at the heart of many cultures across the world.

One of our student interns, Freddy Fossey-Warren, is part of a research project doing just that. The project is looking into the history of chocolate in the British Atlantic world, from its arrival in Europe as part of the Columbian Exchange in the late 15th-century, up to the present day.

Freddy said:


Chocolate is everywhere. Every shop and restaurant on every high street will sell chocolate in some form and it’s always given as gifts on birthdays or over Christmas and Easter. Even certain countries such as Belgium and Switzerland are defined, in the minds of many, by chocolate.

“This project is still in its early stages and as part of the preliminary research, my role is to spend time in Durham’s many archives and special collections in search of any evidence of chocolate.

“I’m uncovering things like recipe books, shopping receipts or even just mentions of chocolate in letters, all of which goes to build a picture of its importance in our world.”

Sweet medicine

Chocolate was introduced from the Americas to Europe primarily as a drink. No-one in Europe had tasted, or even heard of it before the late 15th and early 16th-centuries.

Many Europeans took to it incredibly quickly and as well as drinking it, began cooking with it, mixing chocolate with spices such as nutmeg and cinnamon, and fruits such as lemons, oranges, hot chilli peppers and even ambergris. Chocolate was also used as a medicine or a tonic by many, with claims that it could help with coughs, cure hypochondria or free the body of ‘bad spirits’.

Over the span of just a few centuries, chocolate has become ubiquitous with most people not giving it much thought. As he explained, part of Freddy’s project is to investigate just how it became so engrained in our world.

Freddy continued:

While I’ve only just started this research, I’ve already found a number of intriguing documents and I can’t wait to see what I’ll have found by the end of the summer.

“One of my interesting finds so far has included two letters from the Lisbon collection at Ushaw College between students studying at English College in Lisbon. Both of the letters are from the early 18th-century and discuss chocolate as a contraband item at the college, with one letter referring to a student’s efforts to acquire chocolate as ‘troublesome conniving’.”

Freddy was able to undertake his research due to backing from the Undergraduate Research Internship (UGRI) programme, and he thanked the programme for its continuing support.

He concluded: “Not only has the UGRI programme provided me with free college accommodation and a grant, but it was through applying for the programme that I first heard of this fascinating research. None of this would have been possible without the UGRI programme and for that, I’m incredibly thankful.”

Keep an eye on Dialogue for more details about the research project over the coming months.



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