Visitors to Captain Jackson’s Historic Chocolate Shop are often surprised to discover that our colonial drinking chocolate is seasoned with eight different spices. American Heritage Historic Chocolate is seasoned with cinnamon, vanilla, nutmeg, chili pepper, anise, orange zest, salt, and annatto, as well as a small amount of sugar. We will be taking a closer look at each of these spices to explore their origins and uses in colonial American cooking.
Cinnamon is the spice that our guests usually detect first when tasting our drinking chocolate. The bold taste of cinnamon is as recognizable as the curled, aromatic cinnamon sticks that deliver this flavor. Cinnamon sticks are dried pieces of bark from the Cinnamomum verum plant, which is a small evergreen tree. The branches of this tree are harvested and the bark is peeled from each branch by hand. Once removed from the branch, the lengths of bark are allowed to air dry before being packed and shipped. The dried bark is sold whole as cinnamon sticks or is ground and sold as powdered cinnamon.
Cinnamon is native to modern day Sri Lanka. It has been used as a food seasoning and perfume since ancient times. In medieval Europe, it was a highly coveted spice that was only available to the very wealthy through merchants who traveled to Europe from the Middle East and kept the spice’s origins a closely guarded secret. At the end of the 15th century, Portuguese forces discovered and conquered the island now known as Sri Lanka in order to gain a monopoly over the harvest and trade of cinnamon. Cinnamon was harvested solely from wild plants until the Dutch East Indies Company cultivated the first cinnamon plantations in the 17th century. By the middle of the 18th century, cinnamon was being grown throughout the Indian Ocean region, the West Indies, and Brazil. Today it is grown around the world in tropical climates near the equator.
In colonial America, cinnamon was a popular spice that was used in many dishes and often in greater strength than is typical today. Cinnamon was a common ingredient in familiar desserts, including gingerbread and apple pie. It was also frequently used in beverages such as spiced punches and, of course, chocolate. Less familiarly, cinnamon was used to season and help preserve meats, and in savory recipes like this one for buttered onions. In addition to being used as a seasoning for other food and drinks, cinnamon was enjoyed on its own in recipes such as candied cinnamon, essence of cinnamon, and cinnamon water. Cinnamon was a staple spice in colonial American kitchens and a significant component of the spicy flavor of colonial drinking chocolate.