The Dark Pleasures of God's Food; Critic's Choice

Article excerpt


INDULGENCE: AROUND THE WORLD IN SEARCH OF CHOCOLATE by Paul Richardson (Little, Brown, pound sterling14.99)

YOU MIGHT wonder whether, after the fortnight's gastronomic orgy which is the English Christmas, this is an appropriate time to publish so richly flavoured a book. In fact, to chocoholic and anorexic alike, this is a wholly entertaining, even sustaining work, blessedly short and as stuffed with rich delights as a box of mixed Belgian chocolates straight from the fridge.

For many of my generation, chocolate has a particular resonance.

During a wartime childhood in Manchester the most eagerly awaited parcels were those from cousins in America, packed with Hershey bars, whose uniform, sweet, dark blandness seemed in the grimly rationed 1940s to be the acme of ambrosia.

But most exciting of all was the occasional foray to the sweet shop next door to my primary school.

When pocket money was in as short supply as the 'Sweet Ration', my friends and I would pool our resources to buy a KitKat for one old penny, each contributing a farthing, each gaining one of its four sticks.

(Students of inflation might care to note that the same item now sells for 30 pence: a mere 72 times more than in 1942.) The author's interest was sparked by seeing at Kew Gardens the 'Chocolate Tree', Theobroma Cacao. Theo is Greek for God and broma means food, so that chocolate is, literally here, God-food, which certainly justifies Richardson's quest, if not our appetites, for its delights.

CHOCOLATE has as many enemies as friends. It is supposed to clog our arteries with saturated fats, to give one acne, cause migraines, ruin one's teeth and make one obese.

Conversely, in 1808 a Frenchman called Dufour wrote that: 'Persons who have the stomach exhausted and enfeebled by diarrhoea, wind and copius evacuations, find perfectly good the usage of this drink.' So that's all right then.

In other words, chocolate is like alcohol, good or bad for you in strict accordance with the tastes of whoever is writing about it at that particular moment.

Like that other addictive product tobacco, chocolate came from the New World - in this case from the Aztecs and Maya of Mexico - and reached Europe via the Conquistadors.

Today, in the absence of all those grisly human sacrifices, Mexicans celebrate their Day Of The Dead by eating and drinking chocolate.

The Mexican emperor Montezuma was reputed to have a billion large cacao beans stored in his palace and drank his chocolate from gold cups.

Unsurprisingly, chocolate was assumed by his subjects to have aphrodisiac qualities, a belief soon transported, with the cacao beans, to Europe.

The English physician Doctor Stubbes was, in the 17th century, trumpeting 'the great use of Chocolate in Venery', thus starting a tradition that continued as far as the Cadbury's Flake advertisements. …