“Happy chocolate, which having circled the glove through women’s smiles, finds its death at their lips in a delectable, melting kiss.”
Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin (1755-1826)
This fascinating book winked at me from behind stacks of recipe books at a second hand book stall in my local park this summer. I couldn’t resist, and what a gem it is. It is part cultural history, part travelogue, part literary gastronomy. The author, Paul, is drawn to chocolate and journeys to discover more about the magical fruit. It is immediately clear he has done extensive research, which pays off as he feeds his reader captivating tidbits of myth, fact and history. It’s also pretty remarkable how he followed his passion around the world with a dedicated curiosity few can match.
Along the way he discovers chocolate’s dark, bloody, and spiritual ancient history, reflecting on the ways culture, values and chocolate uses have changed over the centuries, often coming full circle as we begin to appreciate the true value of good chocolate once again.
Paul starts in Mexico, the very source of chocolate – exploring ancient Mayan and Aztec cultures, and the way chocolate was absolutely integral to many aspects of those societies. It was used as currency, for religious rituals (many of which were utterly bloody) and as a wholesome, revitalising drink, but whose use was restricted to the ruling classes. In these first societies to cultivate chocolate, it was consumed mainly as a drink, mixed with spices and prized for its thick foam on top. The author explores the decline of cacao farming, especially as an occupational choice amongst the young, who seek higher paid work in the cities.
Next he ventures to the fine chocolate heartlands of Venezuela, with its superior criollo varieties of cacao. It’s fantastic to watch the development of Paul’s palate as he makes new discoveries – tasting very different sorts of cacao and chocolate at various stages of refinement, from different places with different traditions and flavour profiles.
He moves into Old Europe – Spain, Italy and France, each of which developed their own chocolate cultures that endure today (Spain’s thick hot chocolate, Italy’s love of chocolate with hazelnuts, France’s serious and prestigious Chocolate Societies). He charts the development of chocolate culture across Europe, as it spreads from royalty to the monasteries, then the upper echelons of society and finally through to the Industrial Age and chocolate for the masses.
The last chapter recounts the nostalgia of well-loved British chocolate brands, and the ruthless corporate takeovers which ever dilute the histories and personalities of old favourites. He draws parallels between the bloody rites of ancient Mexican cultures (of which chocolate played an integral role), and the blood on the hands of the global conglomerates mass-producing chocolate today, in the forms of slave labour and backbreaking working conditions.
The book ends on an optimistic note, as Paul observes with delight how the sanctity and spiritual qualities of chocolate are starting to be recognised once more (for of course it can induce feelings unlike any other, and it can transport you to another state of mind, an enhanced sense of well-being and contentment). Paul excitedly notes the rise of small scale, high quality artisanal chocolate, made using ethical ingredients, and the return to the rightful respect and reverence for the magical stuff.
If you can get your hands on a copy, this book is well worth a read – you will learn a lot and come away with an even deeper passion for the wonderful fruits of the cacao tree.