Monday, August 26, 2013
R. Charlton's Coffeehouse
Since just a whiff of Swiss Miss can send me back to snowy afternoons in the 1970s, I wasn't all that surprised to find that among the many more-or-less historical flavors available in Colonial Williamsburg's pubs, restaurants, and kiosks, there is a time machine disguised as hot chocolate.
The building that houses R. Charlton's became a coffeehouse soon after it was constructed in 1750, and was under Richard Charlton's management by the mid-1760s. Growing up in London, Charlton would have had ample chance to experience that city's thousands of coffee shops and to appreciate that the eponymous beverage was actually less important than the exchange of ideas and opinions it fueled. Located conveniently close to the colonial Capitol, Charlton's Coffeehouse also provided newspapers and a particular kind of privacy to its men-only clientele. It was a place where they could gather to freely discuss the news of the day, and, on occasion, to act; some of the events of the October 1765 Stamp Act resistance took place at Charlton's.
In 2008-9, the Victorian house that had been built on Charlton's foundation was removed to a new site and the coffeehouse was reconstructed using historic records. Attention to period details shows in everything from the reception room's eye-popping wallpaper, to the entertaining gossip shared by the prattling "Mrs. Charlton" (below left), to the choice of complimentary beverages offered to each visitor: tea, coffee, or chocolate.
Every single person in my tour group chose the chocolate, served in small china cups with cream on the side. Like the building itself, this chocolate is an 18th century revival funded by the Mars confectionery company's historic division. The process of making it is laborious but so low-tech that it is sometimes demonstrated on site: cacao beans are roasted, cleaned, crushed, ground, and diluted with hot water. To cut the beverage's natural bitterness, Charlton's adds an historically accurate blend of sugar, cinnamon, vanilla, nutmeg, anise, cayenne, and orange zest--far-flung flavorings that taste nearly as exotic now as they would have to the building's original patrons.