Chocolate has always enthralled me. It has loomed large in my life ever since I was a small child of four or five in Addis Ababa. Each Saturday, with my sister and brother, I attended catechism classes there in a spooky crypt where an ancient priest paced the aisles, and afterwards my mother would collect us, proffering Cadbury’s Milk Tray bars. However hard I try, I can recall nothing of the doctrine, only the agonizing decisions about which shape to eat first: the lime barrel, the strawberry creme or the hazelnut caramel? Equally popular were the Italian Easter eggs, elaborately wrapped in crisp metallic paper, and each containing a surprise: once the chocolate shell was broken open, a small toy would be revealed. A year or so later we were back in London, where our next-door neighbour was Granny Scala. She was famous for the artificial roses she planted in her garden in the winter, and also for her seemingly endless supplies of threepenny bars of Cadbury’s Dairy Milk; long, thin, flat tablets, wrapped in purple foil. Then there was our family doctor, kind grandfatherly Dr Barnes, who always produced a packet of chocolate buttons when we visited his surgery. I’m sure everyone has childhood memories like these.
My passion for chocolate evolved as I grew up, and has now become all-consuming. My professional involvement began almost by chance, when I was a student at Camberwell School of Art: One lunchtime I went to meet a friend, who had a holiday job in the chocolate department in Harrods. As I waited for her, I feasted my eyes on the rows and rows of chocolates, in all shapes and sizes. I was startled out of my reverie by a voice asking me if I was looking for a Saturday job. A childhood dream had come true! Within a couple of weeks, I had undergone staff training, and was dressed in white overalls and gloves, waiting to serve my first customer.
I continued to work there every Saturday until I graduated in Textile Design. Then I had to make a decision about my future career. The textile industry was going through a terrible recession, and I was already fairly disillusioned with what I had learned of it from my time at Art School, so I began contemplating other alternatives. The idea of setting up a chocolate shop started as a joke during an exuberant dinner party, but even in the cold light of the next day I could not stop thinking about it. I was convinced that I could do something much more exciting than anything to be found in England at that time. Also, judging from my experiences in Harrods, there were a lot of chocolate fiends out there waiting for someone like me. Fired with the energy and confidence of youth, I bulldozed ahead and in March 1983, at the age of twenty-three, I opened my chocolate shop, which I named Rococo.
I first heard the word ‘rococo’ during a radio quiz game, when it was used in a pejorative sense. I was enchanted by the sound of the word and curious as to its meaning. Consulting the dictionary - which said, ‘of a style of decoration prevalent in eighteenth-century Europe, with scroll-work, shell motifs, etc.; highly ornamented, florid [almost] to the point of bad taste’ – merely confirmed my instinctive interpretation. Later, when it came to the naming of my enterprise, this favourite word seemed a natural choice. It trips off the tongue and suggests a sense of theatre. All the historical references provided an ideal framework for my scheme. In setting up my shop I was inspired to create a fantasy world recalling powdered wigs, pomp and extravagance. I remain convinced that chocolate had its heyday in eighteenth-century London, and I can identify with this period more than any other.
The famous British sweet tooth is probably the result of severe rationing during World War II, or maybe it is because of our nostalgia for all things from the nursery, which appears to have arrested the collective development of the nation. Compared to the rest of Europe, we Britons remain incredibly unsophisticated in our culinary leanings – although we are catching up fast. No doubt the Industrial Revolution also had a profound effect on our food industry: steamed white bread, pressurized beer, battery hens and corned beef are just a few examples of our taste for bland, homogeneous products. Surprisingly, the aims of chocolate manufacturers in Britain were altruistic, and I will expand on this later in the book.
These noble ideals have long since been overlaid with hard business sense. It is sad to think that, as a result of commercial pressures, we are in danger of losing many rare varieties of plant and animal life. This is the consequence of our search for genetically stronger and higher yielding plant varieties. We are already paying the price for past mistakes which affect our health and environment.
The chocolate industry at large is guilty on several counts. The pursuit of mass production has led to the finest criollo beans being replaced by indifferent forastero beans, and expensive pure vanilla by artificial vanillin. More importantly, cocoa butter, the most sensual element in chocolate, is being replaced by solid vegetable oils. The advantages of these oils are that they cost a fraction of the price of cocoa butter, and that they serve to stabilize chocolate, so that it can survive far from ideal storage conditions, and thus lengthen its shelf life. By contrast, cocoa butter literally ‘melts in the mouth’ at the comparatively low temperature of 34°C (93°F), and it is the crystalline structure of cocoa butter which gives real chocolate its distinctive crisp snap. Also, unlike palm oil and shea nut butter (the two saturated fats most commonly used as cocoa butter substitutes), pure cocoa butter is not easily absorbed, and – according to recent research conducted in France – can actually lower cholesterol levels.
As I have become aware of how greatly chocolate quality can vary, I have begun to feel the importance of raising people’s awareness of fine chocolate, just as has been done for wine, cheese, malt whisky and numerous other gourmet delights in recent years. Compared with these, it seemed that chocolate in Britain remained something of a poor relation. I was inspired to put matters to rights, by forming for the first time in Britain a society devoted to fine chocolate. In 1991 The Chocolate Society was launched. I am convinced that we are on the verge of an unprecedented chocolate renaissance which will counter some of the outrageous commercial practices outlined above. I believe that there are many people who have been waiting for such an organization, which will make it easier for them to satisfy their passion for chocolate, without the need to feel bad about eating it.
Chocolate tasting has much in common with wine tasting, as we shall see in Chapter 4. However, whereas wines can survive for decades under perfect conditions, chocolate unfortunately is much less durable. This means that one can only speculate as to the exact flavours of the chocolate consumed in bygone days. Fashions certainly played a part in the flavourings of each era. Many of the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century recipes feature musk, amber and orange-flower water. Amber, now called ambergris, is an oily grey substance found floating on the southern seas, the product of sperm whales. I suspect that these exotic ingredients were favoured almost as much for their rarity value as for their distinctive aromas, and indeed are used only by perfume makers today.
In the course of this book I will be tracing the history of chocolate through the centuries, from its discovery by Columbus to the present day. We will see how, after being enjoyed for many years by the Spanish court, chocolate drinking spread throughout Europe and eventually back to America and all over the world.
Having been an expensive luxury enjoyed by a few, in the nineteenth century chocolate began to be produced in huge quantities, and I will examine the great family firms which spearheaded the chocolate revolution and the developments that led to the many forms of chocolate that we enjoy today. We shall see how chocolate is made and tasted, and review its many uses: as a medieval medicine, as a religious symbol, as a luxury gift, and as a vital dietary supplement and morale booster for soldiers, sailors and civilians alike. I shall also be discussing the various claims that have been made about the effects it can have on our health.
Finally I will be providing some chocolate recipes, including some very old ones. Among the historical manuscripts, several recipes have come to light, including one for ‘Chocolat à l’ancienne’ (meaning ‘old-style chocolate’), which Mozart tasted at Mannheim.
I hope, in the course of this book, to explode some of the many myths surrounding chocolate so that its delicious taste might be enjoyed to the full and without guilt by those of us who love chocolate at its pure and unadulterated best.