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Crossing Continents: Death & Medicine in the 16th Century

Crossing Continents: Death & Medicine in the 16th Century


Maggie O’Farrell’s novel Hamnet, winner of the 2020 Women’s Prize for Fiction is a fascinating yet tortuous study of bereavement. It speculates on Shakespeare’s inspiration for the writing of one of his most famous works, and the role it played in the grieving process for his son. It also tells the story of his family. His wife Agnes is depicted as a strong independent woman, famed for her medical prowess and knowledge of natural remedies. There’s an element of magical realism in there too.

My chocolate pairings, explore the history of chocolate and medicine, the curative powers of plants, and our relationship with the dead.

Hamnet died in 1596 as the second wave of bubonic plague began to sweep through Europe. In late 16th century Mesoamerica, there was no plague, and Europe was benefitting from the spoils of its colonial exploits.  The Spanish were importing cacao and developing an obsession with the nourishing, remedial and intoxicating effects of this Aztec drink. European men were fighting illness and disease with primitive notions of humoral medicine while women like Agnes and the Aztecs in Mesoamerica were practising with the curative power of plants.

Wolters Chocolate Choco Metates, Quetzalli 74% & Kuyay 70% with Canihua

Drawing a line across the globe from the Avon, where Elizabethans were drinking ale to avoid the bacteria lurking in the drinking water, to the Aztec city of Mexico, where chocolate was consumed for its medicinal properties. Wolters Choco Metates provided the perfect pairing. The frothed chocolate, flavoured with cinnamon, chilli and pepper replicating as closely as possible the Spanish adaptation of the cold, bitter Aztec drink.  We couldn’t judge its healing powers but it definitely had the feelgood factor!

We couldn’t judge its healing powers but it definitely had the feelgood factor!

The theme of death stalked us during our book discussions. Visions of Hamnet being “condemned to run for eternity along Henley Street” provided a very English take on death. In 16th century Mexico, the apparition of dead relatives would have been cause for celebration. Wolter’s Dia de los Muertos bar was another perfect pairing.

This stunningly packaged bar delivered a creamy mouthfeel revealing deep chocolate notes with wood and tobacco. Straightforward, chocolatey with a lingering astringency.

Seeking chocolate connected to plants with medicinal uses, I found another bar in my cabinet just waiting for this very occasion, Kuyay’s 70% with canihua, a grain with a reputation for fighting dysentery and altitude sickness. A suspicion that I had “shoehorned” this bar into my pairings had an element of truth. But our discussions of women in medicine had highlighted the malleable and uncertain nature of history and this helped justify my choice of a bar from Peru rather than Mexico. We think of Mexico as the origin of chocolate because that is where the Spanish discovered it and it was the Spanish who documented its early history. We have since discovered that cacao trees were cultivated in the Amazon basin at least 3000 years earlier and used for medicinal and ceremonial purposes by the Incas and their predecessors. (Cronin, 2020)

…canihua, a grain with a reputation for fighting dysentery and altitude sickness.

Canihua is similar to quinoa but not the same. Quinoa has become a fashionable inclusion in chocolate but not one I am particularly attracted to. I admit to being unaware of what canihua was when I saw the bar and bought it just because it would be a new tasting experience.

The textured taste experience turned out to be just as controversial as the origin of chocolate. The canihua grains were too much for some, but their contrast with the bright acidic fruit of the chocolate, I thought was divine.

Meadowsweet thins and barberry leathers from Charlotte Flowers

Shakespeare’s wife (Anne or more accurately, Agnes) has been badly treated by history. (O’Farrell, 2020). O-Farrell offers us an alternative: a portrait of a woman who we felt had the potential to become one of history’s ‘difficult women’.  Not for playing a part in the history of feminism but for maintaining her identity and individuality in the face of the controlling attitudes and limited roles of women in Elizabethan society.

As an ode to Hamnet, Charlotte first enchanted us with white chocolate meadowsweet thins then bewitched us with chocolate dipped barberry leathers.

As a woman with a respect for nature who grew and foraged for plants to sooth the ills of her neighbours, Charlotte Flower was the obvious choice for our pairing to Agnes. And, we were incredibly lucky that Charlotte was able to join us for the session. Our first guest maker! Charlotte combines the essential and sometimes medicinal qualities of seasonal fruits and plants with chocolate. As an ode to Hamnet, Charlotte first enchanted us with white chocolate meadowsweet thins then bewitched us with chocolate dipped barberry leathers.

After tales of meadowsweet being used in bronze age burials, the sweetening of mead, the treatment of the handsome gaelic warrior Cú Chulain and its scientifically identified curative potential, Charlotte charmed us her description of its ubiquitous scent in the summer meadows of the Loch Tay and how after being picked, processed and infused into Madagascan white chocolate, it had the power to take you right back again.  

Next came the barberry leathers. Barberries contain over 22 alkaloids used to treat a variety of illnesses and diseases and appear regularly in Elizabethan recipes. (Wild Flower Finder, 2009). It was more of a jelly than a strip of dried fruit. We experienced intense red fruits with the zing and tartness of a summer pudding and the intensity and warmth of autumn preserves, in perfect balance with the sweet Dulcy blond chocolate.

An evening of 16th century revelations!

Sources and further reading:

Cronin, G., 2020. [Online]
Available at:
[Accessed 7 November 2020].

O’Farrell, M., 2020. Cradle-snatcher, nymphomaniac, shrew: how did Shakespeare’s wife Anne Hathaway get such a bad reputation?. [Online]
Available at:
[Accessed 7 November 2020].

Wild Flower Finder, 2009. Barberry. [Online]
Available at:
[Accessed 7 November 2020].

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