For the March gathering of the Louth Literary Coven (before the lockdown!) we received a recommendation from writer and international chocolate judge Cat Black, who suggested we read Andrew Miller’s Now We Shall Be Entirely Free. This historical thriller, set at the height of the Napoleonic Wars presented me with the challenge of finding craft chocolate to enlighten us about the historical context and, at the same time, make an assault on our senses. Who better to ask for ideas than Cat Black herself. “Definitely something with salt” was among the brilliant suggestions. It soon became apparent why…
THE BOOK (No Spoilers)
I think it is fair to say that the Napoleonic Wars is a historical period that none of us were particularly familiar with. Those of us who studied Spanish remembered the haunting scenes of the uprisings in Goya’s Dos De Mayo and the ensuing executions depicted in his Tres De Mayo. That, however, was over 35 years. No matter, as Miller brings history to life through its wider context, creating a sensory experience and familiarity that helps us feel both the cruelty and the human kindness of the time.
The origins of the chosen chocolate took us on a journey to the cocoa-growing Spanish colonies of Ecuador, Peru and the Dominican Republic. In 1808, the imposition of Joseph Bonaparte by Napoleon on the Spanish throne sent shock waves through the colonies. While Lacroix was being pursued through the Hebrides by Calley and Medina, the plantation owners of Spanish America were planning their own revolutions. As with the islanders in the novel, with the exception of a little more cruelty and bloodshed no doubt, life was less disrupted for the slaves or former slaves labouring away in the cacao plantations. In São Tomé, another colonial battleground, then held by Portugal, it would be another fifteen years or so before the plantation workers would be forced to grow cacao as well as sugarcane to feed the habits of their European colonisers.
“Everything tasted of salt” and the senses are used as a literary device throughout: Lacroix is half deaf, Emily is going blind, Ranald has hooks for hands and the laudanum, whisky and brandy dull their perception of real life. Senses are dulled but then stimulated with music, romance, walking with no boots, needles in eyes, salt, smoke and the cold that hurts your hands even though they are no longer there!
Through my chocolate choices, I wanted us to taste the elemental character of the chocolate, while our senses were being thrilled with the additions of salt, smoke, alcohol and nibs.
Duffy’s: Camino Verde Ecuador 43% with Cocoa Nibs & Oak Smoked Salt
This bar was a must, given the habitual presence of sea salt and smoke throughout the novel.
We enjoyed the caramel notes of the aroma but were split over the rest of the experience. Some of us loved the sweet and salty contrast, the subtle but discernible smokiness of the salt crystals, the gradual strengthening of the salt along the tasting journey pushing the sweet caramel flavours into the background and the sensorial coup de grâce of the remaining nibs. For some, a lovely sweet, salty, crunchy chocolate experience, with a lingering aftertaste, but for others, the dominance of the salt and nibs was just too much of an attack on the senses.
Solkiki: Marañón Canyon Peru, Ararat Brandy, Salted Caramel
We moved on to the potential deep caramel and liquorice notes of the Peruvian dark milk with the addition of the ‘purest’ type of salt: pink salt crystals, rich in essential nutrients, mined from the Himalayan mountains of Pakistan. Nibs again, but this time soaked in Ararat Brandy.
We picked up a heady mix of aromas: chocolate, a little fruit, honey, vanilla and sweet alcohol. The sweet brandy of the nibs hit us first, swiftly followed by the contrasting creamy, caramelly chocolate. The salt evaded us this time, acting simply to increase the sweetness of the chocolate: the brandy-soaked nibs providing the opposition to the sweetness rather than the salt.
One of our group thought that this bar was the best match for the book. “It had a bit of everything”, she said, “salty, boozy and the texture of the nibs was a bit uncomfortable to eat and John (Lacroix) does spend a lot of the book in discomfort!”…. my choice justified!
Feitoria do Cacao: São Tomé 72%
The novel is played out mainly in Glasgow and the Hebrides but Lacroix’s memories of his time as a red coat also take us to Portugal: an opportunity to taste another bar from Portuguese makers Feitoria do Cacao. Their salted bar is made with cacao from São Tomé and uses the delicate taste of Flor de Sal harvested by hand from tidal beds of Aveiro.
The aroma was initially a little reluctant to deliver its subtle flavours, but the chocolatey notes gradually revealed a little citrus and dried fruits. A fairly quick melt initially delivered a slight bitterness which was quickly subdued by the salt. The initial taste of the salt allowed sweeter, fresher red fruit notes to reveal themselves from between the deep bold chocolate notes, then a return to the salt at the end.
The fruit notes were quite different from the deep prune notes picked up in the aroma, the effect of the salt perhaps: the presence of salt increases our perception of sweetness and helps release aroma molecules.
A more duotone profile, but an accomplished interpretation of São Tomé cacao and a superb demonstration of how salt can influence our perception and play with the intrinsic flavours of the cacao.
Bare Bones: Dominican Salt 68%
Onward to Glasgow!
When searching for Scottish makers, I came across a new maker from Glasgow called Bare Bones. Even the name was perfect, taking me straight back to Ranald feeling the cold in his bones, Calley’s bizarre recollection of a girl working at the mill having her arm ripped off at the shoulder, and more generally the feeling of being exposed to the elements.
All thoughts of carnage were cast away as we took in the beautiful aroma of the Bare Bones bar: chocolate, hazelnut, caramel and treacle. We all enjoyed the easy, even melt after the conflicting textures of the first two bars. The mouthfeel was full-bodied and deeply satisfying. The initial salt hit gave way to a delivery of real fruitiness, quite different from the nutty aroma. We were tasting sweet fruits: strawberry, even a hint of pineapple; “plummy” and “treacly” were mentioned too. Then the aftertaste reverted back to the aroma notes with the gorgeousness of a caramel and chocolate spread finish. A truly scrumptious, mouth-watering chocolate!
Like everything that evening, this bar tasted of salt but the experience was more of a tender caress than a sensorial onslaught.
The Bare Bones bar was generally considered the best match for the book. It was from Glasgow for starters! It was dark and complex, the salt was there but not overpowering and left us feeling uplifted. It was the music and dancing of the novel rather than the conflict and discomfort, but the drama offered by both the book and the chocolate was appreciated by all.
This blog post is a summary of my post on the Louth Literary Coven’s Mainly Books and Chocolate blog. The complete post gives all our thoughts on the book’s themes and messages, as well as our full chocolate tasting descriptions and votes for our favourite bars. You can link to the full blog post here.