Matt Cain’s life affirming story of Albert Entwistle was the book that launched the Craft Chocolate Book Club in association with chocolate expert, writer and artist Cat Black. I also shared these pairings with my longstanding chocolate book club friends at Louth Literary Coven. This summary reflects, in the main, this shared experience. You can also listen to my conversations with Cat, on the Cocoa Runners website.
Written by Matt Cain, a former journalist and leading commentator on LBGT+ issues, The Secret Life of Albert Entwistle is a truly joyous book. Against the backdrop of 60s Bolton, Matt’s story takes us on a journey of self-discovery with Albert, a 64 year old postman coming to terms with the news of his imminent retirement from a job that has defined his life for the best part of 50 years. It also paints a picture of persecution, discrimination, police raids, physical fights and fights for the right of self-expression.
My book club friends will testify that a ‘rollicking love story’, is not what I would usually pick off the shelf, but I loved this book and I loved Albert. I loved his honesty, I loved his sensitivity, I loved the way he learnt to love and most of all I loved his capacity to change the way he felt about the world. This is a fairy story and like the best Brothers Grimm creations, it moved between the dark and threatening sides of human behaviour to the things that make life sweet: human relationships and love.
It also made me want to walk out in the open countryside and dance!
This simple love story, set in the North of England has just one reference to chocolate, the Crunchie bar Albert buys over and over again, because “the honeycomb centre reminded him of the cinder toffee he used to love as a child, a big block of which he’d been given as a good-luck present on the day he started work as a postman.” The significance of this we later discover is the link it provides to his past and what is missing in his life.
As this was the first craft chocolate book club put together for Cocoa Runners, I had the help of fellow chocolate and book enthusiast Cat Black to find the right pairings for this gem of a book. The links we discovered in our chocolate pairings retained the Brothers Grimm interplay between the lived experience of being gay in a society where homosexuality is illegal – the case for some countries where so much of our cacao is grown – and the freedom of expression we now enjoy.
Dormouse Toasted White
We began with a bright bar, inspired by the flamboyance and freedom of Manchester’s gay village. A bar made in Manchester by Isobel Carse and her partner Karen Hughes. If Albert had seen it wrapped in its blue foil, I’m sure he would have been reminded of bluebells and blue eyes and what they meant to him. It is white chocolate but not what you are expecting from white chocolate. It challenges your expectations of chocolate just as the book questions our assumptions of maleness and masculinity. It is not white for a start. The toasted milk gives it a warm caramel colour and a taste reminiscent of a childhood favourite, the Caramac. The 38% cocoa butter with its sweet honey notes adds to the comfort. The experience is reassuring and reaffirming rather than complex and challenging. It is a ‘look on the bright side’ bar mirroring the experience of the book.
Original Beans 70% Tanzania with Nibs
From comfort and light, we move to a bar made with cacao grown in Tanzania where homosexuality is socially taboo, and a same-sex sexual act is a criminal offence. The darkness behind this bar however, revealed citrus, apricots, caramel and treacle toffee, reminding us what is possible and how far we have come as a society in terms of gay rights, even in the last 50 years. It was the societal divide between the places where cacao is grown and where it is consumed that cast the darker shadow for us. Encountering some spikey notes and the remaining nibs in the tasting, sparked an association with two characters: Albert’s work colleague, the seemingly misogynistic Jack and Albert’s mother. The later remaining a character whose motivations we struggle to fathom.
Barebones 70% Madagascar
For our next dark bar, we moved to an origin where homosexuality is not illegal but still oppressed by societal discrimination, far-right politics and lack of international scrutiny. This was our Albert bar with the internalised character and flamboyance just waiting to be released. The aroma, like Albert was quiet and understated; then as the melt began and the flavours unfolded, it became more outspoken, stronger and more colourful. Yellow citrus, red raspberries, maple syrup and bonfire toffee all demanded our attention. Bloomin eck!
Crafted in Glasgow by Lara and Cameron at Barebones, this bar really did live up to our expectations of cacao from Madagascar.
Omnom Liquorice and Raspberry
Our final choice was a Valentine’s Day bar from Icelandic makers Omnom. Omnom also make a Pride bar but our book was ‘a rollicking love story’ and so we opted for love, raspberry and liquorice. At this point, I admit to not being a fan of liquorice but what unfolded was the discovery that this dislike was in fact a result of eating too many stripy candies as a child and thinking I knew what liquorice tasted like. My lack of enthusiasm for liquorice was shared by some of my fellow book clubbers who reaffirmed my distaste. At this point I questioned the wisdom of this bar choice for the launch of our Cocoa Runners initiative. Cat however is a self-confessed ambassador for liquorice and tasting it again, alongside Cat with a clean palate and a more open mind, I had a completely different experience, one that I was only able to appreciate when I put my own preconceptions aside. It was an unconventional pairing – Omnom do this so well. The sweetness of the chocolate, the tang of the raspberries and the fresh and enticing liquorice danced together in this bar. It was loud and proud, a ballroom dance, a marriage between sweet and sour or Black Jacks and Fruit Salads! It was our George bar.
Cocoa Runners Craft Chocolate Book Club
You can hear more thoughts on these bars and this pairing from Cat and me, on the Cocoa Runners website. There’s also the option to buy the bar set to taste yourself. We would love to hear what you learn from these pairings too.