The book choice for the December gathering of Louth Literary Coven was, for all intents and purposes, a random one. The hectic lead up to Christmas, even in a pandemic, demanded a quick read. A cursory glance at the googled results for ‘short novels’ revealed the image of a still life of an egg by James Gillick, who we all know, on the cover of a Julian Barnes novel none of us had read. Random but effective.
The Sense of an Ending follows Tony Webster, a middle-aged man who, through a series of unnerving discoveries, begins to question his memory and understanding of events that happened in his youth. He realises that “remembering isn’t always the same as what you have witnessed”. Letters, emails, meetings, memories of conversations, and relationships give Tony an “unsettling sense of the limits of self-knowledge”.
Tony’s re-evaluation of his memories provided the inspiration for my craft chocolate pairings. Taste and memory are intrinsically linked, and chocolate is something we all remember from our childhood and student years.
Scientists tell us that the majority of what we consider as flavour is perceived through our sense of smell (or olfaction). This can account for up to 90% of our taste of food. In chocolate tasting, this refers to aromas we detect by smelling the chocolate, as well as the flavonoids detected by our olfactory system as the chocolate melts and we breathe out through our nose. These smells are processed by our brains in an area that is very close to the amygdala, which processes emotional memories. The processing of smell is also different to other senses. Smells enter our brains without us consciously processing them, so even though we are very good at remembering smells, this may be why we have more difficulty in identifying and naming them. When it comes to describing them, we tend to go for the amygdala reaction: we either do or don’t like them.
It was no surprise then that when I asked everyone to tell me about their favourite chocolate from their student days, the nostalgic session revealed many memories. Not only of sweetness, texture and creamy chocolate, and the taste of flavourings and inclusions, but also of comfort, indulgence, special occasions, Christmas, gifts from Grandad, and the joy of receiving a free bar after sending off empty Wispa wrappers foraged for in hedges and rubbish bins!
In the novel, Tony looks back at his teens and early twenties and considers how the pretentiousness of youth had matured into what he sees as the stability and prudence of later life. I wanted the chocolate pairings to be our ‘grown-up’ chocolate choices, those more focused on flavour, ethics and unpredictability, but I still wanted them to trigger those emotional responses from the amygdala too. I followed each tasting of our ‘grown-up’ bars with a teenage bar that inspired its selection.
Chococo Honeycombe Clusters
A vegan friendly honeycombe cluster made with Madagascar 67% chocolate couverture and Agave Nectar was inspired by our memories of the Cadbury Crunchie. We experienced a pleasurable melt and that familiar sweetness balanced with the thick covering of dark chocolate. The quality of the couverture let the experience down for me, but I was a lone voice. The general emotional response was simply, “I love that!” The crunch of the Crunchie bar was just as we remembered. It was super-sweet and stuck to our teeth yet some still enjoyed it.
Solkiki 60% Marañon Salted Caramel
Inspired by our favourite caramel combos, particularly the Cadbury Curly Wurly, I chose Solkiki’s vegan, Peruvian chocolate made with organic coconut, a touch of pink mountain salt, and a long conche to release the beautiful caramel flavours. This bar showcased sweet caramel in a very cultivated form, with the visually appealing Curly Wurly’s ladder shape replaced by the gorgeous Solkiki mould. Wow, this really hit the spot – flavour and ethics in abundance but oozing with comfort, indulgence and pleasure too. Sadly, the Curly Wurly didn’t fare so well. Everything but its shape failed to recall any feelings of pleasure, present or past.
Duffy’s Chocolate Orange Dominican Republic (65%)
The iconic Terry’s Chocolate Orange and its taste and memories of Christmas led me to Duffy’s Chocolate Orange bar. The vividly zesty orange in the dark fruity chocolate immediately transported us back to our childhood Christmases. It was “absolutely lovely” and raised our spirits much more effectively than the subsequent tasting of the once treasured, boxed and foiled chocolate orange, the smell, taste and emotions of which were all disappointing. But one of us persevered until that memory of Christmas returned.
Solkiki Costa Esmeraldas, 64% Vegan milk
I chose a dark, vegan milk made with Nacional beans to deliver that straightforward milk chocolate experience of comfort in a bar. It started well with a sweet chocolate aroma. This time, comfort wasn’t delivered in the form of a super smooth hit of creamy sweetness, but with a mouth-wateringly good taste experience. A deep caramelly and chocolate flavour, with a bright, juicy acidity, and an aftertaste that just went on and on. It was liked by all. For me, it is a straight swap for my good memories of milk chocolate, but at 64% it was a little too far away from the classic milk chocolate experience, making it more reminiscent of a good dark bar. But then, the Dairy Milk Buttons didn’t perform particularly well either. Although still comforting for some, the aroma, taste and mouthfeel were unrecognisable. For others they were unpalatable.
Soma’s Milk Old School (Chuao Venezuala 35%)
Soma’s Milk Old School, already a firm favourite of the group, was brought back to compare with the textured treats of a Flake, Wispa, Twirl or Aero. Soma’s divine combination of crumble, melt and central chocolate flavours was just as we remembered from previous tastings. Just amazing. Texture, however, was not considered a treat by the whole group, leaving some a little unimpressed with my suggestion for the ultimate ‘grown-up’ crumbliest milk chocolate. The rest of us The rest of us dismissed them, of course! Like Tony Webster, they just didn’t get it. The Wispa, I confess, did do a little better than the Buttons, helped of course by the addition of 4% cocoa mass and air!
Our memories of chocolate were full of emotional connections. Tasting the bars of our youth in our middle age may not have delivered the taste experience we remembered, but we are still the same people as we had been at school. Our taste buds may have matured along with the recipes of the bars but the emotions are still there.
Sources and further reading:
Barnes, J., 2012. The Sense of an Ending. Reprint ed. New York: Vintage Books.
Fields, H., 2012. Fragrant Flashbacks. [Online]
Available at: https://www.psychologicalscience.org/observer/fragrant-flashbacks
[Accessed 8 Dec 2020].
Jordan, J., 2011. The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes – review. [Online]
Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2011/jul/26/sense-ending-julian-barnes-review1
[Accessed 30 Dec 2020].
Spence, C., 2015. Multisensory flavor perception.. [Online]
Available at: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25815982/
[Accessed 8 Dec 2020].
Stuckey, B., 2012. Taste What You’re Missing: The Passionate Eater’s Guide to Why Food Tastes Good. New York: Free Press.