Invoking the devil - a paean to the cocoa bean

Joanne Harris gives in to the temptations of chocolate.
(c) JMH 2004 - 1BSR
(From the Femail Section of the Daily Mail, 2 December 2004)

It's a peculiarly British belief that what you enjoy most can't possibly be good for you. Alcohol. Smoking. Taking in the sun. And food, of course. Especially food. Every day brings some new food Inquisition to root out and destroy the remaining pleasures of the table. British beef, Scots salmon, French cheeses; all have been demonised in their time. We have become a nation of food bigots, obsessively regurgitating scientific gastro-babble, constantly asking ourselves - is it bad for me? - instead of just getting on with the business of enjoying it.

But some demons cannot be so easily exorcized. Chocolate, that erstwhile enemy of dieters and nutritionists everywhere, is making a comeback. Not that it was ever far away; but in a society where we trust science over instinct, it needed to be proved once and for all: chocolate is officially good for you.

The main chemical reason is theobromine; a substance found in high levels in the cocoa bean. This near-magical substance has many properties, including the capacity to stimulate the production of endorphins (those essential "feelgood chemicals" that are triggered by exercise and sex). According to new research, theobromine has another property, too, which I fully intend to exploit this winter; it is now understood to be one-third more effective than codeine in treating colds and coughs. Other research indicates that chocolate boosts serotonin, and may thus be helpful in treating depression; that its zinc and iron boost the immune system; that its high content of polyphenols may help reduce the risk of heart disease and that its antioxidants (twice the amount found in red wine) may help to combat cancer. In fact, as far as the scientists are concerned, chocolate has changed from dietary whipping boy to all-round nutritional hero almost overnight.

Of course, to many of us this isn't news at all. We have always known chocolate was good for us. In winter, hot chocolate made with cream and spices; with chilli for a hangover; rich in puddings; silky in mousses; sprinkled over ice-cream in midsummer; festive in midwinter; delicious, essential all year round.

Why chocolate? Well, it begins with the texture. That brittle snap that melts just as it reaches body temperature, settling languorously against the tongue. Its infinite variety - by turns powdery, crackly, frothy, satiny, creamy, flaky, glossy. Then the colours; its wonderful palette, reaching all the way from palest gold to ebony-brown. Then, the aroma; that blend of bitter and sweet; woody; fruity; supremely intoxicating. Cooking with chocolate is a sensual delight, involving and enticing every sense. The taste of chocolate is uniquely magical.

Magical? Well, the Aztecs certainly believed it, using it in mystic, and often bloody rituals from which women were barred. It gave them visions, enhanced their senses, allowed them to share communion with their gods. For many years afterwards the Church distrusted it, fearing its occult origins and its addictive properties. Since then, many things have been claimed on chocolate's behalf. It has been used as a cure for indigestion, headaches, anaemia, sluggishness and infertility. It has been claimed as a stimulant and an anti-depressant.

For centuries, too, it has been celebrated as an aphrodisiac; its links with sensuality are too numerous to mention. Chocolate, and not music, is the food of love; whether it be the comforting treats of early childhood or the darker subtleties of the adult palate. It speaks to the sensual imagination in the language of desire. Casanova swore by it; Marilyn Monroe was addicted to it; a generation of Flake ads capitalized on its enduring sex appeal.

Perhaps that is what has given it its "sinful" reputation. There is something uninhibited about the liquor of the cocoa bean, something that invites intimacy and initiates communication. Chocolate-lovers share a language that others do not; they inhabit a dark underworld of pleasure that is denied to the carob-eating community. And it's the pleasure, not the calories, that makes chocolate so dangerous. Surely, we think, something this good must be bad.

That's why so many people will welcome the news that chocolate is now officially back on the side of the gods. Chocolate, so we're told, is suddenly allowed. All at once I feel very virtuous. My craving for chocolate is no longer a mere indulgence. It is medicinal; righteous; almost a duty, in fact. Is it my fault that I love it?

And yet I feel that somehow we have missed the point. Part of the attraction of the forbidden fruit is precisely the fact that it is forbidden. And chocolate, like love, should not simply be a matter of chemistry. Because for me, and many other chocolate addicts, chocolate is a state of mind. A state of bliss, to be precise; a compound of emotional responses that go far beyond scientific analysis.

In Chocolat, it became the central metaphor of a story in which chocolate bridges the gap between the sensual and the spiritual and takes its place in society - not simply as an agent of pleasure, or even of temptation, but as an instrument of change, a catalyst that heals wounds, brings shy lovers together, incites children to rebel against their parents and battered wives to seek independence. It is a drug that gives confidence, melts bitterness, cures loneliness. It is even an agent of salvation, inviting tolerance rather than prejudice, love rather than censure. That's a tall order, even for something as magical as chocolate. And yet so many people responded to it, recognizing themselves in the characters I had written. I discovered that chocolate is a field of associations, each personal to each individual, but all strangely familiar.

Milk chocolate reminds me of my childhood, when things were simple and most problems could be solved with a hug and a square of chocolate. It reminds me of France, where I first saw the Easter displays - rabbits and hens and eggs and bells - all gleaming and crackling in their nests of shiny cellophane. It reminds me of my daughter when I am away from home. I eat it on dull winter afternoons when the sun still hasn't come up, or in the bath after a stressful day. In cooking I generally prefer bitter chocolate, with a cocoa content of 70%. There is something sophisticated about bitter chocolate, an adult flavour, and I like its gloss and its pungent scent. I eat less of this type, because its effects work dangerously fast - like drinking three espressos in a row, followed by a shot of cognac.

Chocolate satisfies on so many levels - sensual, emotional, physical. But there's much more to it than that. The Aztecs knew it a thousand years ago, and prized the cocoa bean more highly than gold. In those days it was a magical substance, inducing frenzies. Now it has been tamed - a little - though its ancient fascination still remains. Mexico, Venezuela, Columbia. The court of Montezuma. Cortez and Columbus. The food of the gods, bubbling and frothing in ceremonial goblets. The bitter elixir of life.

That, I know, is the theobromine talking. But forget the science. Give me the magic any day.