A Bittersweet Saga of Dark and Light
By Mort Rosenblum. North Point. 290 pp. $24
Chocolate, like wine, inspires verbiage. Through the years this unlikely-looking substance has attained connoisseurial status, attracting legions of gourmets who find its rich, dark and unfathomably complex flavors a source of lasting fascination. Today's serious chocolate lover will not be content with merely a box of branded high-end chocolates; she will want to know the exact percentage of cacao beans in the mix, where the beans were sourced (single-estate chocolate is the latest fashion) and -- if the chocolate is handmade -- the name of the artiste who created it. Godiva is out, Valrhona (a French company that until recently supplied only to French chefs) is in.
And like wine, chocolate has inspired an armory of descriptive adjectives, with the earnest taster detecting "notes" of woodsmoke, mushrooms, wild berries, leather and coffee. For the record, there is something in this: In terms of flavor and scent, a piece of chocolate is considerably more complex than a glass of red wine. Yet it is notoriously difficult to identify the component parts of chocolate, let alone relate them to variables of production such as climate, topography and soil content -- the terroir, in wine-speak -- because in almost all cases that information is simply not known. As a result, writing on chocolate frequently descends into a kind of lustful enthusiasm dressed up as gastronomic objectivity.
One of the strengths of this entertaining book is that the author, Mort Rosenblum -- an ex-editor of the International Herald Tribune -- follows journalistic instinct by taking the part of the general reader instead of lording over us as an expert. This is not a history of chocolate -- indeed, straight history is its weakest element -- but a series of vignettes in which we travel the globe meeting a wide variety of characters who are deeply immersed in chocolate (in a manner of speaking). The chapters read like a series of magazine articles or personality profiles, filled with quotes, and range from the riveting to the workaday.
Although there are numerous paeans to the delights of fine (French) chocolate scattered throughout, the best passages of the book deal with pressing political or commercial concerns: One has the distinct impression that the author's natural habitat is the newsroom. The chapter on the issue of child slavery in the snake-infested cacao plantations in Ivory Coast (whence comes 40 percent of the world's cacao) is based on numerous interviews -- or non-interviews, as nervous politicians fled -- and two visits to West Africa itself. The author's conclusion -- that the problem is exaggerated -- may be controversial or even unpalatable, but it is at least based on sound research and first-hand experience.
Of less serious import, but treated with equal rigor, is the unintentionally amusing pretension of chocolate-maker Valrhona, where quality of product is matched only by the pomposity (or hauteur) of its executives. Foreign chocolate-makers line up to protest the company's patronizing, dismissive attitudes toward them (Americans are, predictably, beneath contempt), with the company apparently deigning to supply their wares only if the recipient is deemed worthy of them. It is all the more frustrating that everyone agrees that Valrhona is still the best in its field, with an "almost mythical cachet."
Nevertheless, Rosenblum tells with evident glee the tale of Alessio Tessieri, an Italian chocolate maker who visited the Valrhona factory in 1991 with his mother and sister. Incensed at Valrhona's dismissive attitude toward them -- "They told us they did not think Italians were ready for their products" -- Tessieri immediately went into business as a competitor and recently scored a triumph when he managed to secure stocks of cacao beans from the tiny Venezuelan plantation of Chuao, accessible only by boat. This fabled supply had hitherto been the preserve of Valrhona alone, and Tessieri's coup apparently hit them hard. The tale of a little man triumphing against Gallic haughtiness stands out because the main thrust of this book is very much in favor of all things French, with Parisian chocolate consistently hailed as the finest in the world. It is here that Rosenblum's journalistic objectivity falters.
The author lives on a houseboat on the Seine, and one has the sense that he is happy to play the role of the enthusiastic, over-respectful American in Paris -- one can almost see him hovering obsequiously in the kitchens of uncompromising French chocolatiers, grateful for any morsel, chocolaty or verbal, they deign to throw in his direction. Early in the book there is a wonderful description of a visit to the "guerrilla factory" of chain-smoking rebel chocolatier Jacques Genin, hidden behind a battered white door in "the dingy back end of the 15th arrondissement." But this is followed at intervals through the book by less interesting descriptions of other French chocolatiers, and it gets repetitive. The chapters on Belgian, Swiss and British chocolate seem to be there simply to demonstrate the superiority of the French product, and while Rosenblum pays lip service to the fact that one's chocolate tastes are formed by upbringing -- that a liking for a Hershey Bar is as valid as a craving for handmade Parisian chocolate -- he cannot resist trashing other people's, and whole nations', preferences. (Britain comes in for a particularly intemperate mauling here.) Now it so happens that I agree with him about French chocolate being the best in the world, but his uncritical certainty makes Chocolate read at times like something produced for the French chocolate-marketing association.
Finally, all of this connoisseurial appreciation leaves a crucial question unanswered: Is it possible to like cheap chocolate as well as the fine, handmade article? I think it is, but Parisian chocolatiers and their cheerleaders do not. Rosenblum claims to like Hershey's Kisses, but I am afraid I cannot quite believe him on this point; chocolate is repeatedly described as candle wax, and he spends a whole chapter attacking Godiva chocolate -- "Belgian" but U.S.-made -- which one of his French chocolate gurus described as redolent of "overfilled ashtray." This distaste for mass-produced chocolate makes the ostensibly patriotic chapter on Hershey read somewhat awkwardly. In fact, Rosenblum scrupulously avoids attacking American brands such as Ghirardelli even while he criticizes the quality of comparable European makes. Is this blind patriotism or fear of a critical backlash in the home country? Either way, it smacks of epicurean cowardice.
As one snooty French chocolatier puts it, "Tout ça, c'est ne pas du chocolat. C'est de la confiserie." ("All that isn't chocolate. It's candy.") That may be the opinion in the rarefied circles of Paris, but for me -- and I suspect for many others -- while I can enjoy and appreciate the expensive article when the time is right, for an everyday chocolate fix, "candy" is just fine.
Tim Richardson is the author of "Sweets: A History of Candy."