I was giddy with glee at the preview of the Downton Abbey movie this past Thursday. One of my favorite lines was delivered by Tom Branson to the Princess Mary: “We can still love the people with whom we disagree.” That’s what I like about DA – it can be incredibly sweet, while being incredibly funny at the same time. And I admit that I cried near the end when Maggie Smith, the Dowager Countess, told Lady Mary why she went to London.
But one of the coolest parts of the movie for a food etymologist like me was an historical English chocolate reference. In the beginning of the movie, the villain, Captain Chetwode, is walking down an alleyway in town to scope out the King’s Parade, where he will attempt to assassinate King George V – the grandpa of current Queen Elizabeth. Right as he’s about to leave the alleyway, he passes a porcelain sign reading “Rowntree’s Chocolates, Makers to Their Majesties, the King and Queen.”
I was giddy seeing this sign because Rowntree’s is responsible for inventing my favorite candy, the Kit Kat in 1935. Leave it to the English to lightly coat a crispy biscuit in chocolate and invent a confection that would be flavored in hundreds of ways over the next almost 100 years. The Japanese have been largely responsible for this, releasing Kit Kat flavors like cantaloupe, wasabi, watermelon, and my favorite, Green Tea. Originally called the Chocolate Crisp, the Kit Kat was what took the then struggling company from close to bankruptcy into the power house they are today. It wasn’ t until a licensee agreement in 1970 with Hershey that the delicious Kit Kat immigrated to America.
Rowntree’s was established in 1862 in York, by Henry Isaac Rowntree. Even though fictional Downton Abbey is set in York, Highclere Castle is about three hours south of York – it’s actually closer to Cadbury’s headquarters. But as set in York, of course the town around Downton’s estate would have been loyal Rowntree chocolate lovers, even though their cocoa wasn’t as popular or as good as their competitors Cadbury and Fry. They with Rowntree’s were the Top 3 confection companies in the UK in the large part of the 19th and 20th centuries. It is also appropriate for the movie that Rowntree’s were makers to the King and Queen.
Starting as a cocoa and chocolate company, they introduced Fruit Gums – think our US Jujubees – in 1893. Then, staying on trend with the English palate transitioning from bitter dark to milk chocolate, they released their first milk chocolate bar in 1899.
In 1923, during the time of the movie, Seebom Rowntree took over the helm of the company from his father and inherited a struggling company. Cadbury and Fry offered to Rowntree an offer to throw in the towel and join their conglomerate, but they refused, like Lady Mary and the Downtoners, risking to go it ahead on their own. Oddly enough there are no known scenes of Downtoners drinking cocoa or eating chocolates or fruit gums. But I imagine Mrs. Patmore sneaking in a small Rowntree chocolate bar on her walk back from the grocer in town. Maybe the Downtown children received Rowntree’s gums or chocolates at Christmas.
Rowntree introduced After Eight Mint Chocolates in 1962, which made a brief appearance in the U.S., and then the Yorkie and Lion Candy Bars in 1976, which stayed in the UK. They merged with Macintosh in 1969, and then were acquired by Nestle in 1988. They licensed the Kit Kat with Hershey in 1970 and then the Rolo in 1971 for the U.S. Market.
So, like historical dramas and baking show competitions, the English with Rowntree’s dominated the creation of great chocolates with Kit Kat and Rolo – but maybe I’m biased. And Cadbury stole the Cincinnati Opera Cream with their Cadbury Crème Egg.