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A bar of chocolate

Staff and students are planning chocolate-themed events in the lead up to Valentine’s Day in connection with a research project about the origins and history of chocolate.

Drop-in session 

A drop-in session at Palace Green Library on 7 February will focus on the origin of chocolate in Mesoamerica - a historical region and cultural area that encompasses Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Northern Costa Rica – and explore the initial reactions of the Europeans who encountered chocolate there.  

Organised by postgraduate history student Jamie Paterno Ostmann, who is leading a chocolate-based research project, the session is open to the public from 12pm – 1pm, meeting at the reception desk at the entrance. Please note, no large bags and no food or drinks are allowed inside the library and a limited number of lockers are available. Due to the historical significance and fragility of items in the collection, members of the public are kindly asked not to touch the objects, but library staff will be available to provide any assistance that may be required when viewing them. 

Palace Green Library is home to an extensive range of historical objects from the University’s collections, which are available as a source for researchers from inside and outside the University. 

Research of chocolate 

The research project is studying the popularisation of chocolate, examining why it originally connected so specifically to Indigenous cultures in the Americas then came to have such acclaim throughout Britain and its colonies. The project is being conducted in partnership with the National Trust and Historic Royal Palaces.  

Chocolate comes from the cacao tree, originally wild-grown in Central America and Mexico. Cacao was central to Indigenous life, used ceremonially, as medicine and as currency. One of the first commodities encountered by Europeans in North America, cacao exploded in popularity in Europe in the Early Modern period.  

The research will examine questions such as: where and how was cacao grown, harvested, and prepared? To what degree did chocolate’s status as a luxury good influence perception of the people who knew, grew, and made it? How did chocolate leave the site of growth and production and come into the hands of British chocolate sellers and makers, including those who supplied the royal household? Was the chain of supply different for physicians and apothecaries, such as James Chase and Hans Sloane? Did the production and supply of chocolate ingredients affect the vessels in which it was served and the interiors in which it was consumed? 

Staff and undergraduate students from our History Department who are studying Assistant Professor Amanda Herbert’s course on Flavours and Foodways will also be tasting some hot chocolate made by La Rifa Chocolateria, inspired by Indigenous heritages and foodways on 13 February. Professor Herbert recently appeared on an episode of BBC Two's Great British Menu, which aired on 1 February 2023, as a food history expert. She appears in episode 2 at 9:15. 

Palace Green Library is home to an extensive range of historical objects from the University’s collections, which are available as a source for researchers from inside and outside the University. 

Find out more 

Set within the magnificent location of Durham’s World Heritage Site, the Department of History at Durham has established itself firmly as one of the top three in the UK. 

Our research and teaching extend from late antiquity and the Middle Ages to contemporary history; from the British Isles and continental Europe to the USA, Africa and East Asia; and across social, cultural, gender, visual, scientific, political and economic history. 

Feeling inspired? Visit our History webpages for more information on our undergraduate and postgraduate programmes. 

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