February 11, 2007

Recently my friend Joanna invited me to be her "plus one" to an event she won in a raffle. A chocolate-tasting. People will try anything if it's won in a raffle. "I've no idea what it will be like," she said, "but I thought you'd enjoy it."

In other words, none of her other friends would go. But I was thrilled. I imagined it would be like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory: we'd be led around by Willy Wonka and allowed to sample whatever we wanted. Joanna had a different idea. She thought it would be like a wine-tasting: we'd sit in an elegant setting and, like at any good wine-tasting, there would be wine.

We were both wrong. We were seated at a table in a shop. We were given a glass of water. Then placed in front of us was a plate with 10 tiny individually wrapped squares. A serious-looking woman in her mid-fifties sat with us, and when I began to unwrap one of the squares she appeared distressed. "We'll be getting to that in a minute," she scolded.
She began with a history of the bean and explained how it was harvested on plantations and roasted. Then she talked about the purity and percentage of the cacao. By the tone in her voice, you'd think she was talking about nuclear proliferation. But it was more serious than that. Part of me wanted to laugh but the other part of me was envious. I wish I cared about something as much as she cared about chocolate.

As she took us through the squares, we ascended the scale of darkness. The first one - a darker shade of milk - was 55%. We moved quickly up to 64% and were told to swirl it around - tasting the low notes, the high notes, the balance. When I asked what a high note tasted like, she explained the difference between a bean from the plantation in Papua New Guinea and one from somewhere in Madagascar, but I'd stopped listening because the chocolate was so good, I was getting high. By the time we got to 72%, we were all spinning from the sugar rush. Our pupils were dilated, our skin was flushed, even the chocolate guru had loosened up. She had been tasting with us and, once we hit the 70%, suddenly she turned into a hippie. She went on about how chocolate is expansive, a yin, feminine. "If you like that, wait till you taste the 85%," she said. When I asked if that's what she eats, she replied: "Oh, I go to 99%, baby!"

Finally, it was time for the piéce de résistance: the bonbon. And in particular, the chocolate-covered cherry. She explained how it was made - it was macerated for six months in an oak barrel. But for some reason, I didn't hear the word "kirsch". So when I bit into it and tasted a mouthful of brandy, I said something nobody had said before when biting into that delicacy: ugh.

I hadn't meant to sound so disgusted. But I don't drink. And when your mouth is filled with brandy and chocolate, "oh" sounds a lot like "ugh". Either way, spitting it out destroyed all the rapport we'd established. It was like having a guided tour of the Louvre, reaching the Mona Lisa and puking.

After we left, Joanna and I walked home and neither of us could remember anything other than that the chocolate tasted good. Which, I think, is the way it should be. Because some things just don't need analysing.