The Cacao bean is native to South America, but it became the cocoa we are familiar with when the Dutch van Houten found a new processing method, and it was British George Cadbury in 1878 who created a model garden city of Bourneville for his chocolate workers.
On this cold and snowy day I have been reading a beautiful and fascinating book, Fifty Plants that Changed the Course of History by Bill Laws. Cocoa is popular drink around our house in the winter, especially when the grandchildren are visiting and if there are a few marshmallows in the cupboard. Cocoa did not immediately come to mind as a history changing plant when compared to rice, opium poppies, wheat, coca, or tobacco, but it is certainly one of the most important drinks and sweets comperable to coffee, tea, and beer. The beer requires barley and hops, two other history changing plants.
The chapter on Cocao has fascinating stories about cocao’s journey from the Aztecs to the royal court of Spain and then to the court of Louis the XIV in France, as well as the men who ultimately created the chocolate bar including Milton Snavely Hershey. But what particularly intrigued me was the story about the founding of Bournville near Birmingham. At a time when most industrial workers lived in terrible conditions, George Cadbury decreed that there should be no more than seven houses per acre. Generous garden space and fruit trees were provided each house. The houses themselves each had three bedrooms, a sitting room, a kitchen and a scullery. There was also a bath in the scullery (which was the site of running water) that folded away. “Baths are provided in the back kitchens so tht it may be possible to have a warm bath at least once a week. And you have the advantage of drying by the fire.” There is a man who was thinking of comfort as well as health.
Cadbury was a very successful businessman but he disinherited his children and turned Bournville into a trust so that “the speculator will not find a footing.” As for his poor children he said that great wealth was more of a curse than a blessing.
Fifty Plants that Changed the Course of History is beautifully illustrated with old photographs, paintings, and botanical drawings. It was two years ago that I visited the Harvard Museum of Natural History and saw the famous Glass Flowers – and fruits of economically important plants like the cocao bean – created by the Blaschka family. For more about my visit click here.