Colonial Chocolate Spices: Salt
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 flavored 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.
Salt enhances all the flavors in our colonial drinking chocolate and lessens the natural bitterness of the cocoa. It makes our chocolate taste better all around, as it does with countless foods we eat. Pure salt is the mineral sodium chloride, a naturally occurring compound that humans and animals require for survival. Salt is mined from deposits in the earth or collected from salt water sources. It is sold in varying crystal sizes and textures and is available with or without additives.
People have been gathering and eating salt since before the beginning of written history. As human societies transitioned to agriculture, their new vegetable and grain based diet lacked the salt content of the hunter-gatherer’s meat based diet. These earliest farmers began to gather salt to supplement their diets as well as those of their livestock. Salt was a highly valuable commodity for much of human history because it was often difficult to obtain before the invention of modern mining and refining technology. Early American colonists imported most of their salt from Europe until the establishment of salt works on the British islands of the Caribbean in the late 1600s. Salt production in the Caribbean made the mineral much more accessible to the colonists, whose demand steadily increased through the beginning of the American Revolution. The disruption in trade caused by the war made shipping salt difficult and put pressure on the colonies to begin domestic production. In 1776, the Continental Congress offered a bounty of ⅓ of a dollar for each bushel of salt produced. This push for domestic salt spurred the development of salt works across Massachusetts’s Cape Cod, which quickly became the primary source of salt for the new nation.
Salt was a vital and readily available ingredient in colonial America. Before the invention of modern refrigeration, salt was essential to the preservation and storage of meat and seafood. Fish and meats were salted immediately after being caught or butchered and were often smoked after salting to add flavor and aroma. Properly salted meat could last for several years and was eaten much more frequently in the colonies than fresh meat. In addition to aiding in food preservation, salt was also used as a common seasoning in cooking. Salt was added to the same wide variety of dishes that we find it in today, enhancing the flavor of everything from breakfast meats to baked desserts. Salt was also available on the dining table for seasoning foods to personal preference, often alongside pepper, oil, and vinegar. As it was so common, it is no surprise that a pinch of salt was also added to drinking chocolate to bring all the flavors together and make everything taste better.