Think about the high points that punctuate your average day. Not the moments of #highonlife euphoria as you lurch between weekend social engagements like the hedonistic young thing you are, but the little pick-me-ups that see you through a rainy Tuesday.
Obviously there's the first coffee of the day, transforming you into a gathered morning person within a couple of sips. Then the equally welcome mid-afternoon cup of tea, proffering that much needed push through to hometime. And let's not forget the final square (or seven) of chocolate, savoured with a good book (or three episodes of First Dates) on the sofa (or bed—who are we kidding? It's been a long day.)
What do they all have in common? Apart from sugar and a temporary reprieve from doing any sort of real work? Caffeine.
While studies debate exactly how good the stimulant is for us, we've been addicted to caffeine for centuries—something historian Melanie King attempts to get to the bottom of in her new book. Released earlier this month, Tea, Coffee & Chocolate: How we fell in love with caffeine charts the caffeinated drinks' first appearance in 17th century Europe via new trade links with China and the Middle East, as well as the supposed health benefits—and otherwise—pinned on them throughout the ages. You probably didn't know that previous iterations of your latte were thought to prevent the spread of bubonic plague, did you?
We got in touch with King to find out more about our enduring caffeine addiction, when chocolate stopped being a health food, and how we all got to be such coffee snobs.
MUNCHIES: Hi Melanie. Tell me, why caffeine? Melanie King: Well, to be honest, I didn't focus on caffeine. I focused on the actual tea, coffee, and chocolate and was looking at these from a historical point of view. They're our three favourites—most people love one of them, if not three and I was wondering how we got to that. Where did it come from? Then I realised they all came to Britain at the same time. We didn't really discover they had caffeine in until much later so really, it was the drinks and the history that led me to it.
Do you think the fact that tea, coffee, and chocolate all came to Britain from what were then considered "exotic" places was part of the appeal for people in the 17th and 18th centuries? It was new and it was different. In England at the time, people would mainly drink cow's milk, beer, and wine. Water was really contaminated and they didn't used to drink hot water so there were no hot drinks. Maybe heated wine but it was really for medicinal reasons so when these three hot drinks came, that changed the way of thinking.
It seems strange to think that people weren't drinking hot drinks in a cold climate like England's. No, not really. It's all connected with the way people saw medicines, which was to do with the four humors of the body. If you had a fever, it showed that one of these humors was out of balance so drinking hot water was thought to be bad for your body. They actually thought that drinking hot water would boil your blood.
But when people realised that you could consume hot drinks, the ritual of tea drinking became very important, especially for women. I think it was. Tea gave them a social life, to a certain extend. What's very interesting is that the coffee houses at the time were just for men. Tea became popular with women was in the late 1700s because they started introducing taking tea out of the coffee houses to the women waiting in their carriages. Tea was seen as acceptable for women. Coffee was seen to be the male drink and chocolate was always very expensive. Chocolate then was also a drink as they didn't have the technology to make it into a bar of chocolate. It was a greasy drink and only the upper echelons of society could afford to drink it.
And chocolate was thought to be good for your health, too? All of them were. All of them had health benefits and things they thought were bad for you and it depended on where you stood.
In a way, we're having similar arguments today about whether caffeine is good for us or not. Absolutely. There are certain things that they have found that are correct. For example, in 1700 someone said that eating chocolate was good for your teeth. There have been modern studies done that have found something in chocolate which actually strengthens the teeth. One of the things I found interesting is when you look at what they say is good and bad about tea, coffee, and chocolate, the studies they've done in the 21st century have corroborated that. What they were doing in 1650, 1750 is that they were just guessing it from how that beverage reacted on the body.
What about the "coffee culture" we talk about nowadays. Where does that come from? I think coffee has become popular in the last 20 years because we've become more affluent. I remember as a teenager in the 80s that there weren't that many coffee shops around, whereas now you've got Starbucks and all these small shops and cafes that have beautiful coffees and teas. I think we're more affluent and can go in and afford it now.
Are there similarities between today's trendy cafes and the original 17th century coffee shops? Yes, they used to call the original coffee shops "penny universities." Part of that was because any man—no matter what his rank or job—could go into a coffee shop, sit next to a lord, and read newspapers for free. It was kept affordable. With the chocolate houses, it was so expensive that you would only get the upper classes. But of course then neither were really fair because women weren't admitted.
Why did tea become the most popular of the three drinks in Britain? I would say tea became the most popular because we had the East India Tea Company and an agreement with Canton, so we had access to Chinese tea. Tea was easy to transport too. We dried it where it was grown and when it got to Britain, it could be re-brewed. You couldn't do that with coffee, it would come over in beans and you'd have to grind it on site. That's why tea became popular in the countryside, they'd put it in these little boxes and transport it to grocers or apothecaries.
Tea, coffee, and chocolate are no longer new and exotic. Why do they still have such a hold over us? Because I think they all taste good! The thing that has changed so much these days is chocolate for example, we're now saying cut the sugar and have 70, 80-percent chocolate.
If you had to choose, what would it be: tea, coffee, or chocolate? Oh God! I don't know, I suppose tea but it's builder's tea, I like a strong tea. I'm not a tea connoisseur but as I say, at breakfast, I start with my tea followed by coffee.
Good strategy. Thanks for talking with us Melanie!