A simple query: When is it better not to leave well enough alone?

The author in a Tuareg headdress. Courtesy photo.

The author in a Tuareg headdress. Courtesy photo.

By Alan Dean Foster

In this case, the answer is chocolate. Come to think of it, that’s not a bad answer for any question.

What do you feel like doing today? Chocolate. Is there anything I can do for you? Chocolate. What do you think of Trump’s latest cabinet appointment? Chocolate.

Just saying the word puts a smile on the face of most folks. Unless, alas, they happen to be allergic to the stuff. But for the rest of us, simply the mention of CHOCOLATE! conjures up a feeling of joyful expectation. Hearing the word brings forth remembrances of the taste, the silkiness, the sweet charge of energy and contentment as it melts in your mouth that …

Excuse me a moment. Time for a quick trip to the pantry.

There (*sigh*). That’s better. You won’t mind if I nibble a little while I pontificate, will you?

When I was growing up, chocolate was, like so much else in life (especially pre-puberty), simple. There was Hershey’s, and for the youthful connoisseur, Nestlé’s, both simple milk chocolate loaded with sugar. That was it. If you wished to dally in exotics, you got Hershey’s with almonds, or Nestlé’s Crunch. I gravitated toward Crunch because it was made with crisped rice and I could, on occasion, fool myself into thinking that I was actually eating cereal heavily flavored with chocolate. As an adult I take no position on whether Nestlé’s Crunch is cereal flavored with chocolate or if Count Chocula, Cocoa Puffs, and their breakfast ilk are chocolate flavored with cereal. This is why we have professional nutritionists and highly-paid food industry lobbyists.

But, again like so much else, even chocolate has changed. We now have a galaxy of artisanal chocolates. To me, whenever the adjective “artisanal” is applied to food, that simply says to me that the product has been developed by someone who actually knows how to cook. Chocolate has been flavored, manipulated, and turned out in varieties that would have astonished the Maya, who first made use of the stuff (as a drink, not as a food).

I’m not going to go into the background of chocolate here. There are ample resources freely available for those who wish to delve into its often fascinating history. What I’m on about is the art of chocolate and how it has evolved from the cave painting version (Hershey’s and Nestlé’s) to realist, impressionist, and even modernist chocolate (say, Lindt, Vahlrona, and Theo).

I remember clearly when a Hershey bar of some heft could be had for a dime. Nowadays a chocolate bar from an “artisan” chocolatier can cost from three to eight dollars and up, and I’m not even talking about shop window truffles from Belgium or Paris or New York. What you get for the extra money is not always better chocolate, but inevitably something far more complex.

Chocolate has become like wine or tea, with gourmet tastings and furrowed-brow analyses that would have flabbergasted Milton Hershey. The difference is that, instead of a bar having “flavors of goji and lavender with overtones of peach and pear,” as (supposedly) might be found in a glass of wine, your chocolate will actually have goji and lavender and peach and pear right in the bar. If done right, the result is an entire complex dessert offering enclosed in a single wrapper. If done wrong, the result can be inedible. A fancy foiled wrapper and exalted price mean nothing.

choco

Image components public domain. Illustration by 5enses.

As with wine and tea, the flavorings that go into chocolate are very much a matter of personal taste. I’m still trying to figure out the current craze for putting sea salt in chocolate. I mean, if I want salt in my snack, I’ll buy a bag of pretzels. I don’t know where in the mix that puts chocolate-covered pretzels.

Again, it’s all a matter of taste. Some folk can’t handle dark chocolate and prefer milk. Some adore white chocolate, which isn’t really chocolate at all. Then there are those for whom chocolate means chocolate and nothing else. No fruits from the heart of the Amazon. No tea. Tea is for drinking. No nuts. Nuts are for eating out of a can. Certainly no salt, whether it comes from the sea or a mine in Poland. But we’re all different and we all have different tastes.

Which is one of the great things about the explosion in artisanal chocolates. There’s a flavor and a favorite for everyone, yet we can all agree that chocolate itself is a wonderful thing.

Myself, I favor straight dark chocolate, though I’m always willing to sample some of those artisanal ingredients. Favorites among the latter? Coconut and raspberry. Non-favorites? Pepper and, of course, salt.

Furthermore, science has now determined that (dark) chocolate is good for you. Lots of antioxidants and stuff. My personal picks? Vahlrona and El Rey at the apex, followed by Chocolove and then an assortment of lesser brands.

Straight up, if you please, neither shaken nor stirred. My kind of art.

*****

Alan Dean Foster is author of more than 120 books, visitor to more than 100 countries, and still frustrated by the human species. Follow him at AlanDeanFoster.Com.

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