356 – The Chocolate Fix

After reading Charlie and the Chocolate Factory umpteen times as a child actually visiting a chocolate factory was bound to be a disappointment. There were no green sugar pastures, no nut-testings squirrels and no pygmy tribesmen singing cautionary songs. In their place was a factory floor that could have been used to make, well, anything. Only the fact that our glimpse into the world of chocolate making came as part of the Cadbury World tour gave any clue that the the dour workers in coveralls and hairnets were making sweets and not industrial fencing.

Our view into the factor was thankfully short. Due to unknown circumstances we were barred entry onto the gantry in the factory rafter and instead viewed the production line through a window before being plied with a large bar of chocolate each to forget that a good part of the tour we’d paid for was for the moment offline.

I was fine with this. Chocolate seemed like a good swap for not having to watch machines wrapping the foil onto Creme Eggs. It’s not as if the rest of the tour was worth taking. Aside from a trip ‘back in time’ through tableaux of important scenes in the history of chocolate, at one of which we tasted a highly spiced and terribly moreish version of Aztec xocolatl the tour was a series of instructional videos about how to pump air into Wispa bars or endless museums of wrapper designs. There wasn’t nearly enough tasting for me and I returned home from Cadbury disappointed.

I am–I was–a chocolate freak. This was a serious problem for a boy growing up without pocket money and without Charlie Bucket’s propensity for happening upon pennies in the snow. Every couple of weeks my grandparents would give my sister and I a bag of sweeties but with chocolate so expensive the best I could hope for cocoa-wise was a Curly Wurley or Finger of Fudge. Even Cadbury’s Buttons, long since dismissed by my parents as a sweet for babies would have been gratefully received.

In true Willy Wonka tradition, there were only two days of the year upon which chocolate was guaranteed: Easter and Christmas. Easter was a given: what was Easter Sunday for if not chocolate? Each given Easter Eggs according to his or her tastes, my sister and I soon scoffed our way through the eggs themselves and whatever goodies lay hidden in the middles. As far as we were concerned the bigger the egg, the better, and when we tumbled downstairs following clues set in a treasure hunt to where the Easter bunny had stashed this year’s load we headed straight for the larges, most impressive egg, to smash the box apart and drink greedily from its contents.

Christmas was a different matter altogether. In my household Christmas was an excuse to eat until you were sick. Christmas day was home to the biggest meal of the year, but the days satelliting it on either side were just as loaded with good-for-nothing treats. For weeks ahead of the big day my parents stockpiled sweets and snacks in every form they could find and they’d stay tantelisingly out of reach, forbidden to our young stomachs, which would have sucked in everything in one great glut if given half a chance.

I’m not kidding, One year when I was very young I ate the chocolate decorations from the tree, snaffling them down without even bothering to unwrap them. There’s probably a piece of tinfoil still floating about my lower intestine.

When Christmas Eve arrived–and with it our customary pre-Christmas meal of Chinese food or a bucket of chicken–my parents broke into the first of the season’s chocolate boxes, and from then on not a night would pass without all four of us gorging ourselves aching on the contents of it or its descendants.

There’s a strict protocol to be followed when rooting through a box of Roses or Quality Street: a pecking order at the bottom of which lies the terminally unwanted cremes.

Ostensibly orange, coffee and strawberry, all three were overly sweet even for a small boy and tasted only mildly of the flavours they purported as if left under a hot fairy light for too long.

The money chocolates–and the ones I always went for first–were the caramel cups and kegs, followed by chocolate toffees. When most of the chocolates had been eaten sitting in the carton beside the cremes were the toffee pennies, the only sweets in these so-called chocolate boxes that hadn’t been dipped in the brown stuff. If they’d been chocolate-coated I probably would have fought over them with my sister instead of stealing away the caramels before she knew how many the box contained.

Most of these year-in year-out chocolates were Quality Street or Roses, but we had other boxes of chocolates over the years, dependant on sales and special offers. We ate Sparta, All-Gold, Milk Tray and Black Magic, and on the individually packaged side we had Walnut Whips and hung Pyramints on the tree as decorations, so pretty were their pyramidal boxes.

Pyramints were a personal favourite, with dark chocolate and nose-cleansing peppermint being one of my most-adored flavour combinations. Over the Christmas period we ate mint Matchmakers, and on Christmas Day poking from the top of my stocking I’d often find a box of After Eight Mints. Mint fondant, mint creme, mint crisps–chocolate and mint was one of the many flavours of Christmas, and rarely tasted for the rest of the year.

But then something happened, something I maintain to be the worst thing to happen to boxed chocolates since the invention of the chocolate Brazil. As much of a chocolate fan as I was, I never really cared for the Neapolitans found in Cadbury’s Roses. These were tiny bite-sized chocolates ingots wrapped to ape the larger Dairy Milk and Bournville bars I was often given come Christmas morning. Neapolitans were joke chocolates, tiny chocolate bars that seemed at odds in a box where everything else had a crunchy, crispy, chewy or soft centre. They weren’t chocolates: they were chocolate.

Somebody somewhere must have enjoyed them, because one year miniature versions of established chocolate bars were all the range, and nothing’s been the same sense.

Cadbury’s Miniature Heroes, Mars Celebrations–even Bendicks, one-time maker of premium after dinner mints resorted to making cheap and cheerful mint selection Mingles in an attempt to fit in.

Instead of eating special chocolates on special occasions, these chocolate collections propose, why not eat the same chocolates you’d eat the rest of the year round?

I can’t deny there’s something oddly appealing about small, cute portions of Mars, Milky Way, Maltesers and Bounty bars. Seeing a Cadbury’s Creme Egg the size of a finger joint is at first delightful.

But compared to the chocolate boxes they ousted, they’re positively mundane. Who knows what Terry’s Sparta contained? I remember being particularly fond of a dark chocolate with a fiery ginger centre but for the life of me I can’t remember which collection it belonged to, only that it sure as hell wasn’t one of those Celebration abominations.

As Cadbury and Mars flooded the market with inferior collections so some of my best-loved Christmas brands stretched to encompass a year-round market. Pyramints and Chocolate Oranges were sold in vastly inferior bar form while Mintolas were re-branded as bite-size After Eights. All at once, everything seemed to go wrong.

Another mainstay of our Christmas celebrations disappeared altogether. For as far back as I can remember we always had chocolate liqueurs, those little boozy treats encased in chocolate enrobed sugar shells. In a move as heinous as pork pies being made without jelly, liqueur makers started skipping the sugar shell and pouring the booze straight into the chocolate. In retrospect this was probably down to new sweet-making technology making the traditional shells obsolete, but knowing that didn’t make biting down into a soft, cardboardy liqueur any less disappointing.

There was some light at the end of the tunnel. After years of begrudgingly chowing down on inferior chocolates I discovered the good stuff courtesy of Hotel Chocolat. Finding one of their fliers in an Amazon order, one advertising–gasp!–free chocolate, how could I refuse? I tried their introductory selection and never looked back.

These days Hotel Chocolat is well known as the hottest name in high street chocolatiers. Their stores are the only ones I can bear to shop in, being light, airy and clean with friendly, knowledgeable staff who aren’t too pushy and–most importantly–offer free samples to their customers. Their chocolate doesn’t come cheap but it would be ridiculous to compare their range (which features single estate cocoa truffles, ganache woven with fine alcohol, real fruits, spices and vanilla) with a teeny tiny Mars Bar. If I were buying Christmas chocolates in the UK I’d only shop for supermarket crap in an attempt to rekindle lost nostalgia, which is exactly why I’ve bought a box of minty Matchmakers and some sacks of chocolate coins with me to the US. Believe me, if I could afford to ship Hotel Chocolat stuff over here (or buy from their US store, which manages to be even more expensive than it is back home), I would.

Alas, despite the best intentions of die hard cocoa fiends, America’s chocolate still leaves plenty to be desired. The most popular brands are inedible, and though not everything American and chocolatey is dire (Late July’s dark chocolate cookies are a welcome addition to my pantry) I wouldn’t touch most so-called chocolate products over here with another man’s tongue.

But who am I to be fussy? Was I any less happy then, when I was feasting on a massive slab of Dairy Milk and saving the cardboard casings as drawer liners? If anything I was happier not knowing the subtle differences in European chocolate-making methods as I do now, as I’m sure are all those gladly scoffing chocolates modern day me regards as swill.

And now, older, wiser and more jaded, not even a four kilogram block of Dairy Milk would pump my Christmas full of cheer. Willy Wonka would be disgusted,

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