For the love of coffee and chocolate

Roasted coffee beans (Wikimedia Commons)

Roasted coffee beans (Wikimedia Commons)

As habits go, our obsession with coffee and chocolate is hardly a new one. Although for some reason, I never thought of the early settlers at the Cape drinking something quite as exotic. Tea drinking was of course assumed, because of the VOC’s trade between the East and Europe, but coffee sounded too modern! and chocolate too much like a Cadbury’s advertisement! Until a friend pointed out – in a coffee shop – that many of the 18th century estate inventories included “chocolaatkopjes”!

So I did some sleuthing of my own.

Simon van der Stel – apart from being the governor of the Cape during the late 17th century – also held sway as a farmer, wine maker, and by proxy, a trader. One of the people he employed to sell his farm produce to passing ships, and in turn buy goods off the returning fleets, was the “chinese christian” Abraham Vijf. Some of the goods Vijf traded were indeed “chocolaatkopjes met pierings, theegoed en coffiegoet”.

A few years later Olaf Bergh had bought Constantia from Governor Van der Stel’s estate. Bergh was married to Anna de Koning, and in 1734 the widow De Koning – who arrived at the Cape as a slave – was a very wealthy and influential woman and who would certainly have kept up with what was trendy in high society. So no surprise: she owned two “chokalaat kannen” and twenty-three “chokalade kopjes” in 1734.

I found another cocoa drinker closer to home, in Simondium: the former Heemrad Jan Christoffel Schbort of the farm Meerrust. When Schabort died in 1746, his possessions also included a “chocolate cannetjie”.

Most of the Cape’s inhabitants, well those who could afford to drink hot chocolate, bought the cocoa beans off ships in Table Bay harbour.

In Europe, the first consignment of cocoa beans arrived in Seville, Spain in 1585 and as one could well imagine, the very expensive Mexican bean soon became the currency of wealth and sophistication. It did not take long before commercial plantings could be found in South America and the East. By 1616 the Dutch had established coffee plantations in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and within the following decades, also in Java. So the VOC’s returning fleets’ cargo would certainly have included coffee beans along with spices and other treasures from the East.

Increased production meant that cocoa prices dropped, and by the 18th century hot chocolate became more affordable to the middle class. Interestingly enough, it took another century before the first solid chocolate bar made its appearance in Europe.

All the same, in the 18th century Cape, cocoa was still the preserve of the rich. Tea and coffee however was not. By all accounts, they drank it by the bucket fulls, according to Hester Claassens in her book “Die geskiedenis van boerekos”.

Pieter Kolbe, a well-known 18th century visitor to the Cape, wrote that the Cape’s residents often bought coffee from passing ships, and that coffee-houses had also opened, but were banned in 1733 because proprietors used their establishments to trade in liquor as well. The ban was still in place n 1780, but had been lifted by 1800.

Carl Thunberg also wrote that the Dutch sailors drank their coffee weak and bitter – between 10 and twelve cups a  day. The beans, he wrote, were lightly roasted and the beverage was consumed without milk. The weak state of the brew was possibly related to the cost of the beans.

Otto Menzel who worked at the Cape between 1733 and 1741 wrote that nobody left the breakfast table without drinking a least half a dozen cups of weak tea or coffee. Women especially had poor teeth because it was the custom at the time to sip tea through a lump of sugar held in the mouth or between the teeth.

In 1798 Lady Anne Barnard visited the Cape, and she too commented on residents’ habit of drinking vast quantities of coffee.. “We found here what is universal in this country –  constant drinking of coffee,” she wrote.

By the early 1800s the traditional cup of “boeretroos” – coffee – had become the preferred beverage at the Cape although tea remained popular in the interior. Some claim it was to camouflage the taste of brackish water. Cost and availability would also have played a role, and hence the popularity of rooibos and honey bus tea.

Source: Claassens, H – “Die geskiedenis van boerekos”

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