Haute Chocolate

CHOCOLATE: A Bittersweet Saga of Dark and Light, by Mort Rosenblum. North Point, 290 pp., $24.

Newsday, February 13, 2005

Several years ago, at a tree-trimming party, a friend roped me into playing I Dare You to Eat That Chocolate. The rules are simple: Everyone sits in a circle around a Whitman’s Sampler or an equivalent drug-store assortment that is approaching its expiration date and has been separated from the diagram of fillings. When it’s your turn to eat a chocolate, the others nominate various candidates, speculate on what’s inside, debate the potential perils of chemically stabilized nougat versus artificial strawberry creme. Once a consensus is reached, they dare you to eat that chocolate. You take a bite, then grimace or sigh with relief, and everyone laughs.

I Dare You to Eat That Chocolate has become a holiday tradition among my friends, a decadent ritual with the tension and thrill of Russian roulette without its downside. Unless you have allergies, the worst that can happen is coconut.

We manage to play only once a year, so I tip my hat to Mort Rosenblum, who found a way to go professional. In visiting three continents and tasting cacao beans grown in two more, Rosenblum and his tongue suffer chronic abuse. A venerable Oaxaca, Mexico, vendor’s custom grind is “cloyingly sweet, coarse enough to sand a plank.” Moscow chocolatier A. Korkunov’s signature bar has “a gummy texture and an astringency that pushed aside other nuances.” The wares of Charbonnel et Walker, a shop in Mayfair, England, much beloved by the late Queen Mother, are “waxy and oversweet,” and in general British chocolate is “pretty vile stuff.” A Godiva bar pointedly goes unfinished; a bar of upscale Italian dark chocolate gets tossed in the Seine.

Rosenblum, who has lived in Paris since the 1970s, is known as a gourmet and a food writer – “Olives” (1996) earned him a James Beard Award – but it wasn’t until he embarked upon “Chocolate” that he began his transformation from “chocolate ignoramus” to “execrable cacao snob.” His Virgil on this journey is a choco-dependante named ChloÎ Doutre-Roussel, who twice hopped the fence at the maximum-security Valrhona plant and quit her job buying chocolate for Fortnum & Mason after a year because the English “don’t have a clue what food means.”

ChloÎ, a spectral presence in Rosenblum’s tale, steers our hero to small shops in Paris or Brussels, where chocolates are handcrafted from the finest base, if not from the rarest beans. Made without stabilizers, their pralines and pralinÈs – the former is what Belgians call a filled chocolate; the latter, from France, is a blend with ground almonds – are best when eaten almost immediately, and may spoil after a week. For bonbons made from the freshest, purest ingredients by the most skilled fondeurs, a customer can expect to pay $50 per pound. “For candy, that is a lot,” Rosenblum admits. “For a recreational drug, that seems pretty cheap.”

When he isn’t wolfing it down, Rosenblum describes fine chocolate in the same style as fine wine, using terminology that to the layman is as familiar as it is opaque (“slightly bitter bouquet … soft notes of berries and chokecherries … long, rich finish”). I wish he could better explain his enthusiasm, or his development as a chocolate connoisseur. I’m persuaded by his slow-food ethos, but suspicious that he’s absorbed the biases of his adopted home. For example, he treats Nutella, the chocolate-hazelnut spread that young Europeans eat like peanut butter and that ChloÎ still adores, with reverence, while his own childhood taste for Hershey bars, which he compares to his early preference for sweet kosher wine, is clearly a source of shame. He cites one Frenchman who characterizes it as “vomit.” And he can be condescending when describing Americans coming back from Zurich with the same Lindt bars they can buy at home.

At least Rosenblum saves his harshest words not for the naive consumer but for manufacturers, large and small, who bamboozle the public with undistinguished product in fancy packaging. He meets the North American chief executive officer of Godiva, a division of Campbell’s Soup, who talks more about the gold box than its contents, and tweaks MarieBelle, the SoHo boutique, for charging $350 for a 48-piece assortment in an Italian leather trunk.

Rosenblum’s “Chocolate” evokes a box of chocolates, with its visual design (mint-striped cover with gilt script, brown type) and an episodic structure in which each chapter more or less stands on its own. You never know what you’re gonna get, and not everything was to my taste: The material he collects directly from the source, such as his visit to an Ivorian cacao farmer who tasted the finished product once in his life, seems fresher than his reprocessing of chocolate’s history or his account of the European Union’s showdown over the use of vegetable oil.

A former AP correspondent, he’s unafraid of the easy phrase or image – desert-island chocolate, the “I Love Lucy” candy factory episode. But if Rosenblum is not as fine a craftsman as his favorite Paris fondeurs, he is like his description of Lindt: “clean and consistent,” top quality for the mass market. Even if you won’t be in Paris anytime soon to taste gold-flecked palet d’or, “Chocolate” leaves a pleasant aftertaste. At Rosenblum’s recommendation, I picked up a Michel Cluizel Venezuelan varietal with 66 percent cacao in a local gourmet store. A 3.5-ounce bar cost more than a half-pound Whitman’s Sampler, but I dare you not to eat that chocolate.

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