Food from the Heart – Chocolate

St. Paul of the Cross was a prolific letter writer. Thousands of his letters survive and in many of them, he mentions food. There are references to tuna and chocolate, chicken soup and pasta, cheese, coffee, and more. Each week in this series we’re investigating a food mentioned by Paul of the Cross in one of his letters and seeing how it figured into the cuisine of mid 18th century Italy and we’ll be sharing a recipe that is similar to one that Paul and the early Passionists might have used. We hope that visitors to our blog will share their own recipes and other insights into the “culinary world” of St. Paul of the Cross.


St. Paul of the Cross and the early Passionists had many friends who not only helped support the community financially but also helped to obtain things they needed and to ship things they wanted to send to others. Paul wrote many letters to these friends asking for and thanking them for their assistance. In this letter, Paul asks Thomas Palomba from Civitavecchia to get him some chocolate for his brother Fr. John Baptist who is ill.

My brother Father John Baptist continues to suffer from his serious stomach trouble. He had fainting spells that frightened me. Since he has need of something to comfort his stomach, I have an obligation in conscience and in charity to help him as much as I can. So, I am asking you to make up a mixture of chocolate from excellent cocoa, that is, not too sweet, and let me know the cost as soon as possible, for there is a pious person who is doing us the charity for this chocolate.

St. Paul of the Cross

When we think of chocolate today, we imagine it in bar form. However, chocolate bars were not produced until the 19th century. Originating in Mesoamerica, chocolate was prepared as a drink for nearly all of its history. It was imported to Europe after the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs and its use spread throughout the continent.

The heyday of hot chocolate was the 18th century. More bitter than ours, it was made by mixing chocolate liquor (ground chocolate nubs and water) with more water or milk, sweetened with sugar or honey, and spiced up with cinnamon, vanilla, chili, rosewater, or pepper. Chocolate was expensive. It was enjoyed in coffee houses and places like royal courts, not Passionist monasteries.

The new craze for chocolate brought with it a thriving slave market. Between the early 1600s and the late 1800s, the laborious and slow processing of the cacao bean was manual and often the work of enslaved people. Slave labor in the production of chocolate is still an issue today. Find out how you can tell if the chocolate you are eating is connected to child slavery.

Watch this video to see how to prepare an 18th century hot chocolate with a Mesoamerican twist.

Physicians of the time were interested in chocolate’s medicinal properties. Marie Antoinette’s chocolate maker “mixed chocolate with orchid bulbs for strength, with orange blossoms to calm the nerves, or with sweet almond milk to aid the digestion.” It was used to treat fever and liver disease. While large amounts were believed to help chest ailments, smaller amounts could help stomach disorders. It was also used to fight against fits of anger and bad moods. By 1763, when St. Paul of the Cross wrote his letter to his friend, knowledge of the health benefits of chocolate were widely known.

Today we know that chocolate enhances alertness, reaction time, motor coordination and concentration within individuals. It can help battle depression. Dark chocolate is known to contain certain antioxidants that can strengthen the immune system.

Since we are publishing this article in August we thought you would enjoy a recipe for a cold chocolate drink rather than a hot one. If you try it, let us know how it goes in the comments below.

Frozen Hot Chocolate