How the royal chocolate kitchen at Hampton Court Palace was found in a storeroom
PUBLISHED: 10:51 09 January 2015 | UPDATED: 09:11 01 April 2015
With Hampton Court Palace recently spilling the beans on another of its dark secrets, Viv Micklefield goes ‘below stairs’ to see the country’s sole surviving royal chocolate kitchen
Originally published in Surrey Life magazine October 2014
If social media had been around three hundred years ago, chocolate would undoubtedly have become a trending sensation.
At that time, it was a novelty that was unashamedly luxurious to European tastes and pockets, so it’s perhaps little wonder that a professional chocolatier worked within the country’s most prestigious household. However, to find the scene of this alchemy still intact comes as a bigger surprise, and one that’s recently joined the list of visitor attractions at Hampton Court Palace.
Actually, the chocolate bar that we are familiar with today was a later, 19th century innovation. Before then, chocolate was a drink that despite retaining a sense of the exotic – thanks to its mystical South American heritage and stimulant qualities – bore little resemblance to the bitter Mayan beverage sampled by the early Spanish explorers. By the time the cacao bean hit these shores in the 1700s, it was already renamed cocoa, and drinking chocolate was about to become the height of fashion thanks to it getting the royal seal of approval.
“The king’s chocolate had to be the best chocolate, and one of the ways to get the best was to control the process from bean to cup,” says Hampton Court Palace curator, Polly Putnam, part of the team who undertook the restoration of the royal chocolate kitchens, which started back in 2012.
While temporary chocolate kitchens existed within other royal palaces, including at nearby Kew, it was during Christopher Wren’s modernisation of Hampton Court for William III that a room was singled out. And, as Polly observes, this makes a big statement: “What’s really fascinating is that leading from the East Front entrance, there are three working kitchens – the confectionery, the spice room and the chocolate kitchen. It’s a display of sensory exhibitionism. What William and Mary were trying to do was really stand out from the other European courts.”
I should cocoa
Confirmation of the kitchen’s location, indeed of its very existence, however, had become the subject of much speculation over the decades. And, according to resident food historian Marc Meltonville, relied on painstakingly sifting through handwritten notes, letters and ledgers. Their breakthrough was an historical document identifying the use of the rooms off Fountain Court at the time of William’s death. “That was the miracle moment in the project,” Marc recalls. “There at door number eight was The King’s Chocolate Kitchen.”
To the casual observer, it’s a sparsely furnished, modestly-sized chamber, featuring a grill that bears more than a passing resemblance to a barbecue. But for the experts this was a mouth-watering discovery. Having languished as a storeroom in recent years, all it took was a good clear-out and for the cobwebs to be dusted off, to reveal the original state-of-the-art 18th century kitchen, where history suggests this decadent drink was prepared for three consecutive monarchs.
“Interestingly, there’s nothing in this room that tells me that it was a chocolate kitchen,” says Marc, who’d previously worked on the Palace’s famous Tudor kitchen restoration. “But should you wish to make chocolate, you can do everything here. The chocolatier’s assistants could have roasted beans on the range and then, once these were husked to remove the nibs, the charcoal stove could have been used during the grinding process, because a source of heat is needed while you do this.”
As he goes on to explain, the remarkable transformation results in a paste that has the look and smell of chocolate. Sometimes sweetened, this was then shaped into ‘buttons’ or ‘cakes’ and stored for up to a month, while the flavours developed. When it was needed, it was broken up and reheated in a copper pan with milk (apparently a peculiarly British addition), and aromatic herbs and spices or even chilli oil added; one of the skills required in creating this silky smooth concoction being to control the temperature.
“You need to make the chocolate where you don’t do a lot of other things, as it will pick up smells and tastes from other ingredients,” adds Marc. “So it was a good idea to have a dedicated space. And then, this drink was taken from the kitchen to the chocolate room next door to be made fit for a King.”
A peek at some titillating ancient graffiti uncovered in an adjoining vestibule provides an amusing distraction before entering the chocolate room itself. Significantly closer still to the stairs leading up to the King’s apartments, an altogether more sophisticated atmosphere pervades the domain of George I’s personal chocolatier, Thomas Tosier.
With Tosier poached from running one of London’s top 18th century chocolate houses, he was a man at the top of his game; rewarded, according to palace records, with a decent salary and one of the few servants to be given his own bed. In Tosier’s chocolate room, shelves lined with porcelain cups, whose handle designs are based on fragments uncovered during 20th century excavations, vie for attention with sparkling handmade glassware and exquisite replica cup holders, the original ones having been silver.
Clearly, the precision and ceremony with which the chocolate was served demanded a sense of occasion. “I think it was probably drunk during a very odd ritual called the levee, which was when the very richest and finest watched the King getting ‘dressed’ by his servants in the morning,” says Polly. “As one of only a handful of staff permitted to step foot inside the royal bed chamber, this makes the chocolatier an incredibly powerful person.”
Today, Georgian chocolate making demonstrations on selected weekends are proving a big hit with Palace visitors keen to see for themselves the preparation of this royal tipple. Seems that we’re still a nation of chocolate lovers.
A right royal cuppa
Fancy trying your hand at making some hot chocolate yourself? Well, here we bring you a delicious Georgian-style chocolate drink from Hampton Court Palace’s food historian, Marc Meltonville, to whip-up back at home...
The King’s Chocolate
1 ½ litre of milk
350g of dark chocolate (70% or better)
30g castor sugar
15 drops clove oil
5 drops cinnamon oil
15 drops mixed spice oil
15 drops aniseed oil
1. Place milk in a pan and bring to the boil
2. Put pan to one side and add chocolate and sugar
3. Whisk until the ingredients have dissolved
4. Add clove, cinnamon, mixed spice and aniseed oil and mix
5. Place back on the heat and warm through
Raising the bar...
Love eating chocolate as much as drinking it, but still tantalised by tempering or fooled by fondant? Try taking a chocolate making course with a local chocolatier and you’re sure to be amazed at the results! Here’s a few places to give it a try...
For a chilled-out weekday treat, try their one-and-a-half hour chocolate making workshop priced at £25 per person, which includes a take-home bag of goodies. Popular fun sessions for all ages cost £30 per person, or to brush-up on skills there’s a two-and-a-half hour instructor-led class at £50. Tel: 01737 246857 / chocolartltd.com
Sara Jane Chocolates, Epsom
Want to learn how to create a designer chocolate shoe? Artisan chocolatier Sara Jane Chapman offers a tailor-made masterclass from £100 and chocolate making parties for six people or more from £32. Tel: 07794 584 608 / sarajanechocolates.co.uk
Squires Kitchen, Farnham
Whether it’s truffles or a showpiece cake, UK Chocolate Master Mark Tilling runs one, two, three and five-day courses teaching a range of skills for that professional finish. From £150 per person. Tel: 01252 260260 / squires-school.co.uk
William Curley, Richmond and Belgravia
Celebrating 10 years in Surrey, this multi award-winning chocolatier offers Saturday classes at his Belgravia boutique. Learn how to make sea salt caramel, William’s infamous Venezuelan Chocolate Cadeaux and more. From £85 per person. Tel: 0208 538 9650 / williamcurley.com
Need to know:
Hampton Court Palace Royal Chocolate Kitchen
Where: Hampton Court Palace, East Molesey, KT8 9AT
When: Open daily from 10am to 4.30pm (closed December 24, 25 and 26). To mark the ‘Glorious Georges’ 300-year anniversary, there will be chocolate making demonstrations taking place at the Palace on Saturday October 4 and Sunday October 5.
Tickets: Main admission (includes Georgian and Tudor kitchen events): Adults £18.20; under-16s, £9.10; family ticket (two adults, three children) £46.80. Concessions and online discounts available.
Tel: 0844 482 7799 Web: hrp.org.uk/hamptoncourtpalace