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Wakefield Council

You Are What You Ate

Sugar and spice and all things nice

Exotic foods: sugar and spices

Two cake making recipes and one for French Bread from Robert May, The Accomplisht Cook, London, 1678 (photo courtesy of the Wellcome Library)What were the exotic foodstuffs arriving in Europe? Spices from the East such as cinnamon and mace were popular imports. New foodstuffs included rice, potatoes, maize and pineapples. Today we associate tomatoes with pizza, pasta sauce and Italy. But tomatoes only arrived in Europe in the early modern period, and were initially regarded with suspicion.

The seventeenth-century Dutch were perhaps the first to pay for their unprecedented prosperity with their teeth. And we have all been paying the same price ever since. [Harvey and Sheldon Peck, orthodontists, Discover, October 1980].

Sugar had a huge impact on early modern eating habits. As two American orthodontists first observed, Dutch portraits from the seventeenth century visibly show the impact of eating lots of sugar on the Dutch people’s teeth! By this time, sugar was arriving in Europe in much greater quantities so that it was widely available not just to kings and queens but also to the middle classes in wealthy cities like those of the Dutch Republic. Dutch entrepreneurs had started up sugar production in the Caribbean, and by the 1640s there were over fifty sugar refineries in Amsterdam. The Dutch indulged their new sweet teeth by eating things like waffles and pancakes with caramelized sauces.

Henry Stubbe, The Indian Nectar or a Discourse Concerning Chocolate (1662). Photo courtesy of the Wellcome LibraryNew beverages: tea, coffee and chocolate

Today a cup of afternoon tea is as quintessentially English as it gets, and most people would associate the best coffee with Italy. But both of these beverages only took off in early modern Europe in the seventeenth century.

Tea was the first of these drinks to gain popularity, and was initially thought of in mainly medicinal terms. Doctors talked about how it could restore bodily fluids lost from sweating and purging, and suggested it as a treatment for gout. An enthusiastic propagandist for the new drink, the Dutch doctor Cornelius Bonketoe,  recommended drinking 8-10 cups a day, and claimed that he drank 50-200 cups daily himself! Although prices dropped a little in the later seventeenth century, it remained expensive and was not regularly drunk by ordinary people.

Coffee reached Europe via Italy and was soon being drunk in Europe’s major cities. But it would have tasted very different to how it does today. In Rotterdam and Amsterdam, for instance, it was served spiced with cinnamon, cloves and ginger, and sweetened with honey.

Chocolate was also new on the scene. But it was a drink! Solid chocolate only came about in the nineteenth century. Chocolate came to Europe via the Spanish, who had conquered the Aztecs in the early sixteenth century. Cacao beans were imported, and chocolate gained favour at the Spanish court. By the 1650s it was also popular at the English court and in 1657 London’s first Chocolate House opened. An advertisement for this shop explained: ‘In Bishopsgate Street, in Queen’s Head Alley, at a Frenchman’s house, is an excellent West Indian drink called Chocolate to be sold, where you may have it ready at any time and also unmade at reasonable rates.’

Drinkers of tea, coffee, chocolate, 1707 (photo courtesy of the Wellcome Library)Historians have researched how coffee and tea changed from being medicinal to occasional to habitual beverages. They have also paid a lot of attention to the places where coffee and tea were consumed. The rise of the coffee house was a development from the very end of the early modern period, and people would meet up with friends and chat about the news over a cup of coffee, much as they do today. Equally, some people would invite family and friends over for tea.  Thinking about the consumption of these drinks helps historians to think about broader questions such as how people socialised, how rumours and gossip circulated, and how people were brought together to discuss politics. Research has also been done on the economic consequences of the increased consumption of these drinks. One example is the increased demand for glazed earthenware and porcelain cups and pots, which stimulated industry in England and imports from China.  But we should remember that coffee, tea and chocolate were not nearly as widely available as they are today, and their cost meant that they were mainly drunk by the elite.

Trade and foodsellers

Confectioner's shop: interior view, process of smoothing sugar-plums, Paris 1th century (photo courtesy of the Wellcome Library)It’s difficult to separate the history of eating from the history of trade. European countries with extensive trade networks often had the best access to food. In the earlier part of the early modern period, Italy, Spain and Portugal were particularly well placed for access to foodstuffs from the East and from across the Atlantic. In the seventeenth century, the Dutch Republic and England overtook the Mediterranean countries as the two main trading nations of Europe. There were two main ways in which trade had a positive impact on people’s access to food. Firstly, the wealth of these trading nations meant there were more people who could afford more than a basic diet. Secondly, exotic goods were more readily available.

By the later seventeenth century, there were a huge number of different types of food-sellers in Europe’s cities. The historian Sara Pennell has studied the parish of St Giles Cripplegate in London and found that 402 victuallers (providers of food and drink, including alcohol), 32 cooks and 16 confectioners worked in this parish between 1654 and 1693, as well as a wafer maker,  a dryer of neats’ (young calves’) tongues, a gingerbread maker and a noodleman.

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