Food: Temptations

What magic and mystery the word chocolate evokes, bringing in its wake a long string of luxurious, languorous, delicious associations
Ratna Raman Paris 

We received a large box of Ferrero Rocher chocolates one summer. These chocolates, nutty and spherical and individually wrapped in gold foil, were deeply loved. Each afternoon my three-year-old son waited expectantly for one chocolate apportioned to him post-lunch. “Mamma,” he announced one day when the box showed severe signs of depletion, “Eating this chocolate is like eating four different chocolates at the same time. First, there is a nutty chocolate layer, next comes the wafer layer, then there is smooth chocolate, and inside is a whole nut!” Out of the mouth of a baby this, and rather discerning, since chocolates are usually categorised as plain, crunchy, wafer and nut-coated. 

What magic and mystery the word chocolate evokes, bringing in its wake a long string of luxurious, languorous, delicious and memorable associations. Once the cocoa pod was the treasured property of the Mesoamericans, and cocoa trees only grew along the Amazon. Seen as food for the gods by the Mayan people, cocoa found its way from the New World into Europe in the 16th century, and since then, there has been no looking back. Wikipedia records that Christopher Columbus was also the first European to discover cocoa pods. Chocolate in myriad forms, as beverage, medicine, mystical and culinary delight, has succeeded in unleashing the imagination and whetting appetites all over the world. Endowed with aphrodisiacal and antioxidant properties, it now heads the file and rank of wonderful products that combine nature’s gift with human ingenuity. 

In India we have the finest repertoire of sweets, made from products as varied as lentils, milk, cheese and flours. Well-made chocolate is perhaps the only dessert that can hold its own with Chennai’s Adirsams and Mysore Pak, Kolkata’s Notun Gur Rasgollas,Kheer Kadambs andLavang Latikas, Ferozabad’s enormous Mohan Pedas, Kanpur’s Motichoor Laddoos, Karnataka’s Holiges and Gujarat’s Sweet Gujiyas. India’s flirtation with chocolate, albeit late in the 20th century, has now grown into a full-fledged affair. Chocolate has now been accepted and absorbed into the Great Indian Dessert Clique. 

Long before Amitabh Bachchan distributed chocolates in lieu of Diwali Mithai on television, local halwais in New Delhiwere showcasing their version of chocolate milk barfis, and enthusiastic homemakers relied on Cadbury’s cocoa powder to turn out spiffy cold drinking chocolate, smooth puddings, cake and homemade fudge. Once the predilection for sinning with chocolate was identified, cocoa butter and powder, foreign imports till 1965, were incorporated into domestic production. As a result of the surge in the chocolaty desires of a huge consumer market, India is now among the 20 cocoa-growing countries of the world. Kerala, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh have ideal climatic and soil conditions required for the cultivation of this
wondrous tree. 

There is bad chocolate in India. You can find it in the terrible creamy icing found on cakes and pastries in the 100-odd pastry shops in every Indian city, where cocoa powder and sugar are whipped with vanaspati to produce luscious-looking icing tasting less of chocolate and more of synthetic goo. This viscous substance marches down the gullet depositing hydrogenated fat all along the veins. Indigenous producers of chocolate such as Campco and Amul make both brown chocolate and white chocolate. Campco chocolates are at best not eaten, while Amul, despite its phenomenal success with all other manner of dairy, makes middling chocolate that never fails to disappoint. Arguably, it is the concerted effects of Campco and Amul that have ensured a healthy continuity of preference for traditional Indian sweets. 

However, it must be placed on record that despite our hot tropical climate, bad chocolate recipes and the absence of effective cold chains, most city-bred Indian children have had access to good chocolate, largely due to the continued presence of Cadbury in India since 1948. In India, Cadbury continues to be for chocolate what Britannia is to biscuits. Cadbury’s chocolate route comprised entirely of Dairy Milk, Five Star Bars in gold wrapping, and Chocolate Gems in all colours of the rainbow. This miniature chocolate heaven remained largely undisturbed from the 1960s to the 1980s. There was weak competition from a range of local soft toffees and a coin-shaped chocolate wrapped in golden foil that distanced itself behind a glass casing, while alluring us with the promise of edible wealth. 

Sigmund Freud’s ego and id can be easily distinguished through the chocolate litmus test. Good chocolate regularly impinges upon the ego, resists pressure and exerts control, while great truffles tap immediately into the id, feeding desire and cravings that often spiral out into an all-consuming experience with no boundaries. 

Yet, one could never have enough of chocolate. Limited chocolate rations could drive us to desperation. On discovering that large tins of Bournvita powder would cake up at the bottom, we aided the process by regularly adding water to newly opened tins and gazed innocently when an unsuspecting mother complained that the malted powder regularly turned into hard sludge. This was our very first chocolate cottage industry. We claimed the tin and greedily apportioned the chewy sticky malt sludge. 

Cadbury’s Butterscotch came in fine, tall, oval, blue and gold tins, and was eaten amid awed silence. Long after the chocolate was gone, the tins remained, housing humbler culinary items, evoking butterscotch Elysium through illustrated exteriors. Cadbury delights such as Fruit and Nut and Toasted Almonds and Heroes became part of our lives when they arrived in India with visitors from over the seas. It took the decade of the 1990s for the skies to open and for all manner of chocolates to appear on the Indian firmament. 

Foreign chocolates made an appearance in our markets and Nestle expanded its 30-year-old operations in Indiaby marketing chocolates. Kit Kat, Bar One and White Chocolate were the new constellations that pushed Cadbury into quickly introducing its Perk and Fruit and Nut and Dark Chocolate brands. The Indian chocolate glasnostof the 1990s was followed up by a perestroika, wherein preferential allotment of chocolates exclusively for children was completely restructured. 

All of a sudden, chocolate was no longer strictly meant for children. The social advisory allowed for access by all age groups, and chocolate was positioned as yet another smooth example of the remarkable unity in diverse parts of India. Today, India can boast of a huge range of niche chocolate manufacturers who make delicious chocolates in an inexhaustible range of flavours, textures, shapes, sizes and locations. New Delhi’s Chokola, modelled on chocolate rooms elsewhere in the world, is now at the Promenade Mall at Vasant Kunj, selling delicious chocolate, beverage and confectionary to a niche clientele. Other Indian cities are also engaged in the process of assembling their own chocolate rooms. 

The finest and most exotic chocolates continue to be produced in Europe. Swiss chocolates, unbranded or marketed by Lindt, provide for flamboyant chocolating experiences. Here, premium chocolates rest softly on the tongue and glide over the palate with their delicate, unforgettable, yet compulsive flavours. Lindt has a range of chocolates, dark, milk, white, hazelnut and almond filled, fruit syrup centred, 80 per cent cocoa chocolates, chocolates flavoured with red chillies, all invariably dressed to perfection. Chocolates come shaped like bunnies and eggs. They anticipate adult desire and uncork intoxications through regular and bottle-shaped forms filled with select alcoholic liqueurs. 

Toblerone chocolate comes in little and large prisms of white, dark chocolate, nougat and honey, and eating it is an unforgettable experience. Toblers allow one to be transported, rather like a giant, to the world of Lilliput, where triangular hills can be lopped off by hand and scrunched up for dessert. Terry’s Chocolate Oranges were once sold only in England. Each Chocolate Orange, wrapped in orange-coloured foil, when tapped hard, separates into orange-like segments. Both brown and white chocolates flavoured with orange oil make for a fresh, unusual tangy dessert. 

Now Kraft Foods owns Toblerone and Terry’s, and also markets Amavel chocolate mousses under the brand name Milka. Amavel, the new diva on the block, is astonishingly firm chocolate with soft insides that waltz on the tongue. Ritters Sports chocolates, compact, square-shaped chocolate bars from Germany, provide tough competition. The chocolate quality is exceptional and the brand will be a hundred years old in 2012. 

Ashleys Mint Creams from Birmingham have a fondant (icing) and salt lilt to them, and come in tiny chocolate-flavoured diskettes. After Eight Mint Thins, once exclusive to England, now marketed by Nestle, retain their post-dinner slot. English Thornton toffee, with or without nuts, remains a pull, chew and melt experience in any season. Butlers Chocolates from Ireland usually comprise delicious caramels. 

Anthon Berg’s chocolate-covered disks (liqueur-soaked fruit and marzipan) are from Denmark. These chocolates are an exotic adventure, part of the nouvelle cuisine movement where chocolate meets nature to provide nurture, far, far away from the multicoloured world of additives and food colours once controlled by M&M. 

A visit to Max Brenner’s chocolate rooms in New York near the Union Square and in Boston is a delightful. Both outlets comprise large rooms, with thick chocolate brown pipes running all along the length of the ceiling. Niches and shelves in the wall hold unending glass jars filled with chocolate, bits, bites and nuggets

Belgians make fine chocolates, truffles (chocolates with soft-filled centres) and pralines (crushed sugar coated nuts). They package little chocolate tiles that resemble exquisite inlaid marble stonework. Guylian Belgian chocolate is fine chocolate pralines shaped into shells and seahorses. Amazing brown, dark brown and white truffles with mousse interiors are also a special feature of Belgian ‘chocolatiers’ such as Duc d’O. The list is not complete without Lady Godiva chocolate bars, firm and crisp at first bite. The Godiva truffles work inversely. They start as an airy prelude and then dissolve into a satiny mass, releasing subtle flavours inside the mouth. 

Sigmund Freud’s ego and id can be easily distinguished through the chocolate litmus test. Good chocolate regularly impinges upon the ego, resists pressure and exerts control, while great truffles tap immediately into the id, feeding desire and cravings that often spiral out into an all-consuming experience with no boundaries. 

Maite, my Spanish friend from Mallorca, spoke nostalgically of milk chocolate placed between two slices of bread and softened on a griddle as a popular evening snack in her growing years. Nutella, a wonderful spread with hazelnut and chocolate that homemade attempts fail to duplicate, sprung possibly from similar sources of inspiration. Soft bread layered with a generous dollop of Nutella, and covered with yet another slice of soft bread, is a harbinger of superior comfort. In the absence of bread, Nutella, spooned out from the jar and slid directly into the mouth is as satisfying. 

Actually, there is nothing as compulsively addictive as melting chocolate, teased out by the tongue from the crevices of the foil it is enrobed in. Thick, hard slabs of chocolate are difficult to eat. A 5kg Hershey chocolate slab (retirement confectionary from the company) brought back to India by a family friend was smashed into smaller pieces with an ice pick and a hammer before any of us could get around to eating any of it. Similar accounts dot the consumption of the 2kg Cadbury dairy milk chocolate slabs that inhabit shelves at Selfridges. 

Hershey makes a range of small-sized chocolates too and is famously known for a brand named Kisses. There are the famed Mars bars and those understated purveyors of peanut pleasure — Snickers. Dove makes delicious smooth chocolate and Trader Joe’s stores in America market a wide range of chocolates, but the chocolate that provides value for money, taste and health is Brookside’s large bags of chocolate berries, with real pieces of fruit such as blueberries, pomegranates and strawberries, sold at Costco outlets. 

The penultimate years of the 20th century reverberated to the global chocolate beat. Films such as Like Water for Chocolate (1992), which explores the passion of its adult protagonists, and Chocolat (2000), based on the novel by Joan Harris, where cocoa products are the chief protagonists, have also rewritten the script for the role of chocolate in adult lives. Roald Dahl’s delectable book, subsequently made into the cult movie Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005), resulted in the accelerated transfer of mythic expectations from gingerbread men and gingerbread houses in the fairy tales of yore to three-dimensional chocolate mansions. Small wonder that now chocolate rooms are springing up in different parts of the world. 

Anthon Berg’s chocolate-covered disks (liqueur-soaked fruit and marzipan) are from Denmark. These chocolates are an exotic adventure, part of the nouvelle cuisine movement where chocolate meets nature to provide nurture

I visited Le Maison Du Chocolat at the Louvre in Paris. It has branches in New York too. The décor is severe chic with uppity women behind the counter selling stunning truffles and macaroons. The chocolate looks splendid and tastes fabulous too, but the forbidding and curt salespersons are a huge deterrent. I bought expensive chocolate macaroons in different flavours, but the price and the attitude took all the joy out of the chocolates. I could only eat them on the run, in the Tuilliers Gardens outside the Louvre. 

A visit to Max Brenner’s chocolate rooms in New York near the Union Square and in Boston is a delightful experience. Max Brenner is a composite of two founding names from an Israeli chain launched in 1996. The Max Brenner at Boston opened only in 2010. Both outlets comprise large rooms, with thick chocolate brown pipes running all along the length of the ceiling. Niches and shelves in the wall hold unending glass jars filled with chocolate, bits, bites and nuggets. There is a gifts section where a mind boggling array of chocolate is displayed in a multiplicity of packaging. 

The serving section includes a long display shelf housing chocolate marshmallow pizzas and chocolate croissants among other snacks. There are endless chocolate items on the menu, ranging from thick chocolaty hot and cold drinks, cakes, ice cream desserts and chocolate fondues. Occupancy is high, people pour in and out amid animated exchanges. People of all ages linger at regular chairs and tables, or on barstools near the entrance at high counters, waiting for their orders, choosing takeaways, buying chocolates or savouring their choice de jour. 

The USP of an illustration titled Chocolate By The Bald Man continues to intrigue. Despite taking some of the furtive sex out of the chocolate, Brenner manages to set up a whole carnival in its stead. This is a decadent world of fun and frolic, of
celebration and bonding and abandon that is available to the entire chocolate-eating community. 

Chocoholics of the world, unite! Chocolate Lent is finally over!    

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: SEPTEMBER 2011