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Book review: Chocolate Wars by Deborah Cadbury

I picked up this lovely book on a whim in my local independent book shop recently. It’s a really well-written account of the history of chocolate as we know it today, with the main focus being on the author’s family, the Cadburys. There is, however, a detailed and fascinating look at their rivals, setting the scene of the confectionery sector over the past 200 years – from Fry’s (once the largest chocolate company in the world) and Rowntrees to their foreign rivals; Peter, Mars, Hershey’s and Nestle.

The book starts by introducing the founding father of the story, John Cadbury, a staunch Quaker whose values shaped not only Cadbury’s chocolate company, but the city of Birmingham and even the British welfare state. I felt his values and his voice haunting me throughout the book as I watched the spirit of Cadbury’s dramatically change over the years. I kept wondering what he would be thinking as at each turning point, new decisions steered the company in ever more commercial directions and away from its roots as a means of improving the welfare of the community.

We get a fantastic account of the progression of chocolate, from the early 1800s, when it was drunk as cocoa (and mixed with all manner of additives, including potato flour and even red lead by the more unscrupulous vendors), all the way through to the challenge of developing  a palatable milk chocolate. The book’s title refers to the evolving competition for the consumer’s cash by the major chocolate companies, the ensuing innovation that followed, leading to the creation of many of the much-loved confections we still enjoy today.

Just as interesting as the development of chocolate was the changing social landscape. We get insights into the UK’s city slums and the first study into working class poverty by Seebohm Rowntree, as well as the creation of utopian villages, pioneered by Richard and George Cadbury. The uglier side of chocolate is exposed as the book examines the Quaker fight against the slave trade, and it’s interesting to see the emerging importance of globalism right through the book.

An enduring theme at the heart of the book looks at the moral conflicts faced by the Quakers, including when and how to work with their rivals (most of whom, in the early days, were all Quakers), how to move with the times and stay competitive while retaining their religious values, how to approach the war effort, and how best to do God’s work in the face of fierce criticism.

The book ends on a melancholy note as it details the hostile takeover of the much-loved British company, Cadbury’s, by American giant Kraft. It laments the loss of a valued institution and the genuinely caring spirit fostered within the company over 150 years – all gone in a matter of weeks. Deborah Cadbury is an excellent storyteller with an engaging and dynamic writing style, easily bringing a whole host of colourful characters to life. Her book is a fitting tribute for all that her ancestors achieved for the UK.

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