Now We Shall Be Entirely Free paired with historical and thrilling craft chocolate

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…

IMG_4402

(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.

On Chapel Sands meets craft chocolate: An exploration of nature versus nurture

For Louth Literary Coven’s November gathering, we chose an illuminating combination of literature and craft chocolate that delved deep into the secrets of a Lincolnshire family and the ancestry of fine cacao.

The obvious choice for craft chocolate paired with memories of Chapel St Leonards on the Lincolnshire coast was Duffy’s Chocolate, based just a little further north in Cleethorpes.  Tempting as it was to do a full line up of Duffy’s Chocolate, the book’s pursuit of truth took us right across the globe, so I felt the chocolate choice should follow suit.

img_4168On Chapel Sands opens with the traumatic abduction of a small child on a Lincolnshire beach, an event that is forgotten surprisingly quickly as you are drawn into the pictures, recollections and mysteries of Beth’s childhood. As the book progresses, the discoveries that seemingly shed light on the behaviour of Beth’s parents only pose more questions about their actions and relationships.

As we all live very close to Chapel St Leonards, with most of us having grown up in Lincolnshire, we were fascinated by the references to local history and familiar places. We also loved the use of artists and their work to help decode and interpret the everyday lives of the Lincolnshire villagers.

My chocolate choices were inspired by the book’s theme of nature versus nurture. This gave us the opportunity to look at how a bar’s character is influenced by both the inherited, genetic profile of the cacao, and the post-harvest and making processes.

The terms Criollo, Forastero or Trinitario seen on craft chocolate bars relate, in very general terms, to the variety of cacao beans used to make them and give clues to their ancestry and potential taste profile. I chose the following bars initially for their variety, but their origin and maker also have significance as you will see:

(N.B. Spoilers present in the discussion of chocolate pairings)

Soma Chocolatemaker, Guasare, Venezuela 70% (Hilda)

The first craft chocolate pairing combined a bar made with the ‘mother’ of cacao (Criollo beans from Guasare) and Beth’s birth mother Hilda.

The strong, enticing aroma, beautifully smooth texture and the initial bold cocoa and coffee notes evolved into a much gentler and more sophisticated experience. We deliberated over the identity of the jam and fruit notes. The talk of jam reminded us of the heart-warming tart-making scene in Hilda’s family bakery during the first part of Beth’s story; her only memory of those early years was the smell of warm strawberry jam.

The chocolate was complex and beautifully balanced, but these characteristics challenged our knowledge of Hilda and the decisions she had taken; we realised we didn’t have sufficient evidence to judge her as a person or as a mother.

Pralus, Bresil Forastero 75% (George)

Our next match was a Forestero bar, the second parent variety with Beth’s father George. The strong but flat chocolate profile was a stark contrast to the nuanced flavours and complexity of the Criollo beans of the previous bar. A contrast that made the coming together of George and Hilda equally poignant. Such a strange combination! This bar greeted us with a robust aroma of roasted nuts and molasses. A smooth, slow and balanced melt revealed deep roasted flavours, the hints of acidity being overpowered by the treacly and dark sugar notes.

We pondered over what we knew about George: was he strong and bitter or just frustrated and simply resigned to his fate? If he had been born in a different time with the option of divorce and a chance to cultivate his more creative abilities would George have been a different person or would his apparent lack of emotion and suppressive nature still dominate his character?

Duffy’s Dominican Republic Taino 65% (Veda)

We turned then to the Trinitario varieties, the descendants or hybrids created by the coupling of the Criollo and Forastero.  This hybridisation of cacao has continued ever since that first union, making the genetic pool rich and complex.  Veda, Beth’s adoptive mother, brings a new personality into the mix and Beth’s parentage is not, as we discover, straightforward.  I therefore chose Trinitarios for both Veda and Beth, selecting bars from the same maker and region to create the environmental link between them.

Our ‘Veda’ is a Dominican Republic bar presenting us with a smoky aroma, with hints of sweet fruit. This felt really sweet after the previous bar: honey sweet, muscovado sweet, pineapple sweet. Too sweet for Veda. It had character but less pronounced than both the Criollo and Forastero bars and without a hint of bitterness. This comparatively more reserved profile was a more successful match for Veda.

Duffy’s Dominica 70% (Beth)

The final craft chocolate pairing brought together our protagonist Beth with Duffy’s new Dominica bar made with beans of uncertain parentage which I presumed to be Trinitario.

We debated whether we could detect any traces of the Criollo and Forastero ancestry, or if it had more in common with the Trinitario from the not too far away island of Hispaniola. The aroma was certainly more in line with Duffy’s Dominican Republic bar: mild but distinctive with red fruit notes, and the sweetness was there too.

Our silent appreciation, along with the complex taste experience suggested Criollo origins.  Not a whisper of the bold, overbearing Forastero bar though. We think this would have pleased Beth considering her feelings towards her father.

Overall, we felt the style and flavour delivery of the Dominica bar had more in common with the Dominican Republic bar. Just as Veda’s presence had helped shape Beth’s personality, the maker Duffy has teased out and developed the distinct, intrinsic flavours of the Dominican Republic and Dominican beans giving them shared personality traits over and above the genetic profile of the cacao.

We had tasted some fascinating craft chocolate from Soma, Pralus and Duffy’s Chocolate, showcasing some superb breeding and craftsmanship. They encouraged us to examine and share our thoughts on the conduct and character of Beth’s family members and the mysteries that remain unsolved.  Another deliciously informative evening at Louth Literary Coven!

This blog post is a summary of my post on the 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.

Sources:

Cumming, Laura (2019). On chapel sands: My mother and other missing persons. London: Chatto & Windus.

The book and themes:
https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/jun/26/on-chapel-sands-laura-cumming-review
On Chapel Sands by Laura Cumming review – twists right to the end

https://www.standard.co.uk/lifestyle/books/review-on-chapel-sands-by-laura-cumming-a4177196.html

Duffy’s Chocolate. Available at http://www.duffyschocolate.co.uk/shop/chocolate-bars/duffys-dominican-republic-taino-65-60g (Accessed 8/11/19)

Soma Chocolate, Available at https://www.somachocolate.com/collections/microbatch-2019/products/guasare-venezuela-70?variant=13528243896372 (Accessed 8/11/19)

Presilla, M.E (2009), The New Taste of Chocolate, Revised: A Cultural & Natural History of Cacao with Recipes [A Cookbook]

Frizo, C (2018) ‘Is Criollo Really King? The Myth of Cacao’s three varieties’,  Perfect Daily Grind, 27 August. Available at https://www.perfectdailygrind.com/2018/08/is-criollo-chocolate-really-king-the-myth-of-the-3-cacao-varieties/ (Accessed 12/12/2019)

‘Chocolate Strains’, C-Spot.com. Available at https://www.c-spot.com/atlas/chocolate-strains/ (Accessed 12/12/2019)

Cocoa Runners, ‘Cocoa Varieties, Available at https://cocoarunners.com/chocopedia-by-cocoa-runners/the-science-history-of-chocolate/the-history-of-craft-chocolate/ (Accessed 11/12/19)

Division of Agriculture, Government of the Commonwealth of Dominica, ‘Cocoa and Coffee Project’ Available at https://divisionofagriculture.gov.dm/programmes/cocoa-and-coffee-project (Accessed 30/12/19)