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The substance of things hoped for on V-Day

Aztecs thought chocolate came from a tree stolen from paradise

By Ruth Walker / February 8, 2005



If high-quality chocolate were a city, it would be one in which there are no starter homes. Most of us are doomed to the slums of "industrial chocolate," on the other side of the tracks - the Hershey bars or the Cadbury's or whatever it was we got hooked on when we were too little to know any better.

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According to Mort Rosenblum's thorough investigation of the world of chocolate, even some of the most exclusive names rely too much on wax and care more about their gift boxes than their taste.

Reading about food generally leaves me with a new appreciation for whatever cuisine is under discussion, even if it's a temptation from which I wish to be delivered. "Chocolate," however, left me feeling that there's less of a there there than I'd imagined.

Rosenblum bounces from South America and Africa to California and New York to Europe; he also bounces among genres: consumer guide here, history there, with liberal dollops of sociology and medical lore along the way.

Some of the "issues" surrounding chocolate turn out, in this book, to be no big deal after all. Remember the buzz about how chocolate was produced by child slave labor in Africa? Not to worry, Rosenblum says; there are children working for no pay on their families' cacao plantations, but their situation is not materially different from that of young sons and daughters in farm families around the world.

If the cacao exchange in Ivory Coast is a mysterious channel from which wealth brought in from overseas buyers disappears before it makes it to poor cacao growers, the author quotes a French bean trader who diplomatically calls the whole process "opaque" and then pretty much leaves it there.

If there are health benefits to chocolate, no one really knows much for sure; research funding tends to go to those studying disease, not the sense of well-being that comes from chocolate.

He has high praise for the chocolate of a handful of (mostly) Europeans (Patrick Roger or Michael Chaudun in France or Pierre Marcolini in Brussels). There are moments of passion here and there, as he identifies cacao growers who really do it right, chocolatiers who refuse to cut corners. And there are some brands he acknowledges as offering good value for money (try Côte d'Or or Leonidas).

But unless you live in Paris (as Rosenblum conveniently does), to absorb the connoisseurship offered in this book is to set yourself up for consumer frustration. On the other hand, maybe I should figure out how to spend Valentine's Day in Paris.

Ruth Walker is on the Monitor staff.

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