Let’s start by getting one thing straight: I was a Bournville babe, not a Flake chick. But there is a world of difference between the ‘dark’ chocolate I nibbled on as a blissed-out six-year-old and the deliciously intense, cocoa-rich varieties that can now be widely enjoyed.
In the intervening five decades, the British taste in chocolate has been transformed. It’s a process which has gathered such speed since the Nineties that, if we are not yet an entire nation of connoisseurs, there is many an aficionado who prides him or herself on knowing their criollo beans from their Trinitarios; who want their chocolate like their Chianti (‘single-estate’); and who have, as I like to think of it, gone over to the dark side…
Both dark and milk chocolate, well made, have become obsessions with our generation. My editor believes this is because we’re all cutting back on the booze, or abstaining altogether, and so seek a new source of sugar. Hearsay certainly has it that opiate addicts (and reformed ones) have an incredibly sweet tooth.
There is evidence that chocolate sparks off the same receptors in the brain as sex. And it’s clear that chocolate can be a source of addiction (albeit, in a cocoa-rich scenario, to an antioxidant powerhouse that has health benefits when enjoyed in moderation: good for the heart, blood pressure, chronic fatigue and more).
However, none of these factors explain why eating top-end chocolate, particularly the dark stuff, has become such a grown-up pursuit.
After all, adults have always been targeted as much as children by confectioners: remember ‘And all because the lady loves…’? Similarly there has long been a trend towards luxury, quality and specialisation. (Chantal Coady launched her groundbreaking Chelsea shop, Rococo, in 1983.)
Yet when my husband, Craig Sams, and I launched Green & Black’s in 1991, we were met with snorts of derision – and not a few gales of laughter – from several supermarket buyers.
Our plan was to sell not just the world’s first organic chocolate but the UK’s first 70 per cent cocoa-solids product. Until that point, Britain’s darkest chocolate moments were with products that notched up no more than 49 per cent. But, we figured, if we liked the deep richness of 70 per cent, there must be others out there like us.
And so it proved: today, 35 per cent of us prefer a bit of black. Then it was only five.
Not long after Green & Black’s debuted that year – “Right on, and it tastes good, too!” read our first coverage, in The Independent – our crusade to change British tastes in chocolate received major reinforcements. The Chocolate Society was formed with, so rumour had it at the time, seed money from Valrhona, a pricey chocolate range from a European company that also happened to be dark chocolate ‘pushers’.
Whenever the society carried out its regular taste tests, Green & Black’s (then the only other 70 per center on the market) would be scrutinised by its panellists alongside several varieties of Valrhona. We were able to hold our heads high when the verdicts were printed.
Not long after Green & Black’s launch, there came another boost to dark chocolate’s status (and our sales): Dr Michel Montignac’s Dine Out and Lose Weight diet became a runaway bestseller after serialisation in the Sunday Times, and went so far as to actually prescribe dark chocolate as part of its kilo-shedding regime. (The dark stuff, you see, scores even lower on the Glycaemic Index than brown rice, because the already low level of sugar is bound up in the cocoa butter, and is metabolised positively languidly.)
Today, 70 per cent dark chocolate has also become the benchmark of quality for any chef worth his or her Maldon, from Jamie Oliver to Saint Delia of Norfolk. But though there are dozens of options available, only a handful are made the way Green & Black’s still does it: essentially artisan-style, but scaled up.
Beans enter a machine at one end, are roasted, ground into tiny microscopic particles, then conched (more pounding) for as long as a day. Finally, they are blended with vanilla and sugar and, quite likely, anything from crunchy crystals of burnt toffee to sour cherries; sea salt to hunks of ginger.
And maybe those are the true reasons that chocolate-eating has come of age: the flavour of the real stuff – as opposed to the low-cocoa confections on which we grew up – and the sophisticated ingredients now added.
I have always personally believed it’s the time given to making today’s top-end products that makes them so darned tasty. Chocolate has no less than 400 flavour compounds – more than any other food – ranging from notes of licorice to cedar, via coffee, clove, honey and so much more. The best chocolatiers devote themselves to bringing these out.
I probably love chocolate more than ever and, although my ‘favourite’ (when regularly quizzed) is always truthfully “whichever was the last bar of Green & Black’s I tried”, I am also thrilled by the number of specialist shops that have opened throughout the land, encouraging appreciation and connoisseurship of one of Creation’s greatest gifts to gourmets. And allowing us to explore our darker natures…