Book Review: Chocolate: A Bittersweet Saga of Dark to Light

(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

Mort Rosenblum begins his book Chocolate with a quote from Brillat-Savarin: “Nine of every ten persons say they love chocolate. The tenth lies.” This book digs deep into the worldwide love of and obsession with chocolate in a series of essays that take the author from Central American jungles to remote islands to the back streets of Paris.

We read a lot of books about food and food history, and we must say that this one grabbed us immediately. In fact, we almost walked out of the bookstore with our nose in the first chapter.

Rosenblum is a highly entertaining writer who inserts himself into all his stories and loudly enjoys the chocolate he tastes throughout his research. He’s not an academic; the book doesn’t cite sources or even have an index. Instead it’s a collection, loosely connected, of stories and personal research through the chocolate salons and cacao farms of the modern world. Here’s a taste of what he covers:

• Valhrona, that Willy Wonka of the chocolatiers, rivals the Dahl character for secrecy, exclusivity and even eccentricity. Even among the secretive community of chocolate-makers their operations are famously hard to get into. They actually snubbed pastry chef David Lebovitz – they’re not exactly a friendly crowd. And yet their chocolate is a necessity for most chefs and patisseries. Why? Rosenblum tells their story.

• Hershey’s chocolate is often reviled in and out of the States; its sour notes and waxy chocolate is hardly a delicacy to most chocolate-lovers. And yet they have one of the most beloved brands and corporation families in the United States. Hershey was an entrepreneur who gave nearly his entire fortune away to his charities years before he died, and the company is full of people who want to stay true to his spirit. Rosenblum tells the story of what happened when the board of directors tried to sell the company a few years ago.

• He also explores the history of cacao and its place in the ancient world – he makes the places and times when cacao beans were currency, the centerpiece of religious rites, and the king’s drink all seem very real. The gritty, vanilla and chili-laced chocolate drink of those times was very far removed from current incarnations of chocolate. How did it get from there to here?

• And then there are chocolatiers and artisans galore, men and women who have devoted their lives to finding and preserving ancient strains of cacao, blending just the right kind of beans with the right technology to make perfect chocolate, and create magnificent confections and sweets.

• One of our favorite essays was about Claudio Corallo, a man hacking a life out for himself and his family first in the Congo, then on a remote island where he is overcoming incredible odds to grow cacao from ancient varieties.

We’ve whipped through this book like it was a novel, and while we hadn’t been much interested in chocolate’s journey from the jungle to the wrapper, we are now. Rosenblum is a great storyteller and while he may not be as thorough as more academic accounts, he has written a wonderful introduction to the story of chocolate. Highly recommended.

Chocolate is available through Amazon for $16.52.

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