What is it about chocolate that drives folks crazy? There is probably no other food on this planet that creates such dedication and mania. Personally—and I will probably alienate throngs of readers by saying this—personally, I can take it or leave it. I certainly appreciate the nuances of fine chocolate, and I have been known to keep a Snickers bar in my desk for afternoon slumps, but it's not exactly something that makes me melt when I taste it. Chilean seabass with basil makes me melt, a Grgich Hills chardonnay makes me melt, and I positively swoon for escargots bathed in garlic butter, but chocolate for me is just another interesting, but unspectacular, taste.
Please don't hate me for this confession. I do understand that certain foods are directly related to feelings. Some, like chocolate, are fairly universal in triggering the pleasure points of the brain (except for me, of course). Others, like your mom's personal recipe for apple pie, are developed through intimate experiences unique to each individual. So let's explore what makes chocolate so incredibly potent as an emotional trigger.
Two books on chocolate recently landed on my desk. They are not books about baked goods that happen to include a chapter on chocolate, nor are they popular mini-volumes, the kind you get as a gift for a sick friend and measure about the size of a pocket-Kleenex pack. They are adult-sized tomes bearing well-researched content and, interestingly enough, both are packed with full color photos and graphics. Aha! I say. Chocoholics have an artistic, visual appreciation—why else would plain brown food be wrapped in such pretty packaging?
You see, by exploring books directed at a chocolate-loving audience, I sought to experience vicariously that which my palate would not. Just what were these publishers appealing to?
To start, I examined The Chocolate Companion: A Connoisseur's Guide to the World's Finest Chocolates . A compact little hardback published by Simon & Schuster, the layout has all the elegance one would expect in a book about the world's most expensive sweets. The first 29 pages are devoted to the history of the cacao bean, from the Aztecs all the way through to the industrial technology of making chocolate, followed by a listing of the types—milk, bitter, white, etc. All this was fine and dandy, and of much greater interest to me than eating chocolate itself, but I knew in my heart that the real appeal of chocolate had nothing to do with the academics of the food.
The next few pages gave me more insight, as I stumbled upon a chapter entitled "The Appreciation of Chocolate." Aha! This looks like a good place to start, so onward I plunged:
"TASTING: When it comes to tasting the chocolate, it is best to let a small piece gently melt on your tongue. Unless it is a particularly revolting sample, chocolate tasters do not spit out chocolate because information can be gleaned from the "mouthfeel." Is it greasy or waxy? Is there any grittiness? On the negative side, one should check for any smoky or burnt flavors and that it is not too sweet. Is there a good balance between salt and bitter? Is the use of vanilla subtle or is it overpoweringly artificial? How acidic or astringent is the chocolate? Finally, we should look for a good long finish as with a fine wine. If tasting several bars, take a sip of water between different samples, or you can freshen the palate with a piece of apple. Although coffee goes well with chocolate, it dulls the palate in the same way as other strong flavors such as chili or peppermint, so it is best to be avoided at serious tastings."
Hmmm. Me thinks the average, everyday choco-phile has probably skipped this chapter. So I did, too. Instead, I went straight to the book's elegantly designed section called "The Chocolate Directory"—165 pages of one-, two- and three-star rated chocolatiers, categorized as small, medium and mass-producer companies. Each listing features painstakingly pristine photographs of four or five model pieces of chocolate, some of them miniature art pieces in themselves. The author, Chantal Coady, appears to be the sole evaluator of these truly magnificent gems, generously explaining that "The tasting notes are necessarily subjective...I readily admit that I do not like excessively sweet chocolates and find it irritating when a large percentage of an expensive product is made with sugar, one of the cheapest commodities on the market. You might love a particular chocolate selection that is criticized in the directory because favorite chocolates are, after all, very much a matter of personal taste."
Of the small companies she evaluated, I knew not one, although a number of them received Ms. Coady's 3-star rating ("The best quality available"). The company names were heavily laced with hyphens (as in 'Jean-Paul'), umlauts, accent marks, and other characters that do not easily transmit in html. So I moved to the index to search for names I knew: Balducci's and Hotel Sacher jumped off the page. Hotel Sacher was given two stars, but I found this whole thing silly, since the only product rated was the famous SacherTorte—a cake, not a melt in your mouth, melt in your hand nugget, like the other chocolates. Balducci's was a name I knew because of their incredible food emporium in Greenwich Village, but I had only experienced their cheese, produce and prosciutto, so I dismissed this entry from my frame of reference.
Finally, I hit on two brands whose chocolate I had been experiencing since birth: Godiva and, in later years Joseph Schmidt. Both appeared as stocking stuffers each Noel, in the form of a chocolate Santa or other whimsical mold. I never was that impressed with the Godiva products, and it seems my personal taste ran parallel to that of Ms. Coady's, for the prestigious name of Godiva ranked only a single star—an "average" rating for a company whose extensive public relations and advertising efforts go beyond the average, effectively creating a most ubiquitous brand.
Two pages later, Joseph Schmidt Confections, an American company, faired much better, rating a full three-stars, to which I as a primitive (but gut-honest) taster agreed. But when I looked for other American names, I found them mentioned only in passing, not evaluated in the tastings. So, returning to my original mission of what makes a chocoholic tick, I consulted the other book on my desk, The Ghirardelli Chocolate Cookbook.
And it was the words of their founder himself that recaptured my fascination with this topic:
"As sweet as the music of children's laughter, as pure as the heart of a child..."
—spoken by Domingo Ghirardelli. Poetry! Romance! Delight! Surely any food that inspires people to such wonderfully frivolous actions must be magical indeed. And perhaps it's like Tinker Bell and Peter Pan: if you don't believe in the magic, you'll never see it.
While The Chocolate Companion takes an educated, clinical approach to its topic, the Ghirardelli Chocolate Cookbook tackles the emotional aspect head-on, before embarking on it's own colorful "Story of Chocolate."
"More than any other food, chocolate delights and enchants, evoking the memories and emotions that nourish our immeasurable passion for it. Aficionados know that there is no such thing as too much chocolate. Some savor their chocolate in solitude, lingering over each bite; others flock to chocolate tastings in blissful submission to their cherished obsession. Chocolate promises and chocolate fulfills. Chocolate tantalizes, and it comforts. Chocolate has soothed fretful children and welcomed tired travelers; mountain climbers have saved their last piece of chocolate to celebrate reaching new heights; suitors have given chocolate to show their depth of devotion. Chocolate has been used as a stimulant, an aphrodisiac and a form of currency, and long ago, chocolate played a part in the California gold rush of 1849, and in the establishment of one of the world's premier confectionaries—San Francisco's Ghirardelli Chocolate Company."
This is a playful book, as well as a book made for play. Because, I think that deep down inside, chocolate lovers are simply people who look at chocolate as a loyal and playful companion. Someone who makes them smile, perks their spirits and heals their wounds. The illustrations from as early as 1852 and color photos of rich, chocolate creations are meant to trigger the same emotions that a bite of this mystical food does: happy ones, filling us with pleasure. So now I get it— I really get it! Chocoholics merely want pleasure—and all the taste-tests, and all the scholarly European evaluations and epicurean standards of quality are merely trappings around a single ultimate pursuit: that of pure self-indulgent pleasure.
So, with that in mind, having reached the end of my quest, I humbly leave you with a digital chocolate Valentine—recipes to tantalize you and your favorite chocolate lover, and a virtual taste of what Domingo Ghirardelli called "the music of children's laughter." Whether you are a choco-phile, a relisher of caviar and champagne, or even if you find it's simply a good hamburger that gets you to that other level, we wish you a most passionate, most pleasurable, most self-indulgent, and certainly most delectable, Happy Valentine's Day.
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