Bitter-Sweet: Bee Wilson Contemplates the Chocolate Enigma. (Food)

By Wilson, Bee | New Statesman (1996), April 15, 2002 | Go to article overview

Bitter-Sweet: Bee Wilson Contemplates the Chocolate Enigma. (Food)


Wilson, Bee, New Statesman (1996)


Chocolate is often called the food of the gods. But it would be more accurate to call it the mud-coloured product of the pulpy interior of a warty pod. Just what is it that makes the produce of the cacao tree so universally attractive (at least in the west)?

This question has been answered many times and in numerous ways. A while ago, scientists got worked up by the discovery of several naturally occurring phytochemicals in chocolate, which have the ability to stimulate the brain. Yet the latest research indicates that these actually exist in quantities too negligible to have an effect. Several studies in the late 1990s claimed that "pharmacology plays no role" in the craving for chocolate. What does account for it, then? Alan Davidson has written about the allure of the smell of chocolate, the way that the aroma hits the chocolate-eater before the taste does. Many others have commented on the unmistakable "mouth-feel" of solid chocolate. The chocolate expert Sara Jayne-Stanes argues that "chocolate is unique. It is the only food in the world to melt at body temperature." It is this, apparently, that makes the experience of swirling a square of chocolate on one's tongue so blissful.

There is still, however, something enigmatic in our love of chocolate. The taste of chocolate is primarily bitter (some think that the Aztec term chocolatl originally meant "bitter water"), yet bitter tastes in general are instinctively disliked by humans. Why should chocolate be an exception?

Perhaps the answer is that it isn't--that the original question itself is misconceived. We should be asking not why we have a universal taste for chocolate, but whether we do; and if so, of what kind. The Spaniards who first encountered chocolate in Mesoamerica thought it fit for pigs. The young child who adores the sugary milkiness of hot chocolate may be repelled by bitter Sachertorte. Many people love milk chocolate but find dark unpalatable. Moreover, some would argue that most self-confessed chocaholics are really suckers for the cheap hits of sweetness and richness.

Even at the top end of the chocolate market, there are vast differences in flavour, and there is nothing ignoble in preferring one or another, just as you might prefer Pinot Noir to Merlot. Chocolate is not a single, universally loved flavour, but a spectrum of variously appealing flavours ranging from the vanilla-rich butteriness of white chocolate to the orangey astringency of Green & Black's Maya Gold, made without any cocoa butter at all. (I must confess that I just don't like this last flavour, ethically sound though it is. I feel towards Green & Black's chocolate as I feel towards the Big Issue: I want to buy it, but not consume it. …

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